Prosecutor Western Justice has an amusing – so amusing it’s possibly fake? – video up on his website from a DWI arrest. Basically, it’s the falling over type.

WJ introduces the video with this thought:

Defense attorneys always make a big deal that the walk and turn test is on an imaginary line! (gasp). Well, even though it really does not matter if it is an imaginary line or an actual line, here is another reason why some police officers use an imaginary line.

Well, yes, defense attorneys do ‘make a big deal’ about that, and let’s talk about why.

Police officers come into court and testify that attending a Field Sobriety Testing course taught by another police officer makes them an expert in DWI, and juries generally believe them.

In return, DWI lawyers ask jurors to believe the manual from the training the officer received. Seems like a fair bargain.

One common misconception that I see over and over on the part of officers, up to and including some of the local Austin DWI task force officers, is the belief that book doesn’t require that a designated actual line be used.

If asked why the defendant was asked to walk an imaginary line instead of an actual line, most officers reply – some smugly – that ‘the manual’, that is the NHTSA manual, doesn’t require it. Some offer to show the defense lawyer exactly where in the book it says they don’t have to use an actual line.

Invariably, the officer will flip the pages and find this portion of the manual:

Procedures for Walk and Turn Testing

1. Instructions Stage: Initial Positioning and Verbal Instructions

For standardization in the performance of this test, have the suspect assume the heel-to-toe stance by giving the following verbal instructions, accompanied by demonstrations:

“Place your left foot on the line” (real or imaginary). Demonstrate.

[I’m taking this from the February 2006 Edition, Student Manual, page VIII-9 from Session VIII: Concepts and Principles of the Standardized Field Sobriety Tests. It should be in Chapter 8 of most or all other manuals.]

That certainly looks at first blush as if the manual says there’s no difference between the difficulty between walking an actual line, or walking an imaginary line. Although, it literally begs the question, “Officer, how wide a line did my client imagine?”

But no. The officer who so testifies is wrong. (Sorry, WJ, you’re wrong too.)

Flip the page once more – VIII-11 in the one I’m reading now – and you come to the part entitled:

4. Test Conditions

Walk-and-Turn test [sic] requires a designated straight line, and should be conducted on a reasonable dry, hard, level, nonslippery surface.

Requires. So, how to explain the seeming discrepancy? Easy.

The first section is talking about “Verbal Instructions” and is clearly labeled so. It is the Instructions Stage. That means… it is talking about the portion of the test where the officer demonstrates the Walk and Turn to the suspect.

So, going by the book, it’s perfectly OK for the officer to show the defendant how to do the test on his own imaginary line if he wants to do it that way. Heck, we all know they don’t even have to demonstrate all 9 steps. They are allowed to do it that way.

But the NHTSA Manual makes no bones about it: if this test is going to be administered properly, then the defendant is supposed to be afforded the opportunity to do it on an actual line. It is literally: required. And yes, that’s a potentially reasonable explanation for someone stepping ‘off the line’ – it wasn’t there in the first place.

Perhaps WJ’s point was that sometimes the defendant is so obviously impaired that it wouldn’t make any difference whether there was an actual line or not. And yes, I have represented more of my fair share of those types of cases.

But as for defense lawyers insisting that their DWI clients be graded properly… I don’t see anything wrong with that.