Court Restricts Use of Field Sobriety Tests

For years DUI defense lawyers in this state have tried to convince judges that field sobriety tests must be conducted in compliance with the guidelines established by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Given NHTSA’s bright line disclaimer in its student manual validating the field tests only when the tests are administered in the prescribed, standardized manner; and only when the standardized clues are used to assess the subject’s performance; and, only when the standardized criteria are employed to interpret that performance, it seemed reasonable to require a showing that the field tests were conduced in such a manner as a condition precedent to their admissibility at trial. Unfortunately, most judges in this state have disagreed. Recently, the Ohio Court of Appeals handed down the first opinion requiring a foundation to be laid for the admissibility of field tests. In State v. Homan, 89 Ohio St.3d 421 (2000), the court held that the results of field sobriety tests serve as evidence of probable cause to arrest only when administered in strict compliance with standardized testing procedures. The officer in Homan testified that during the gaze nystagmus test he did not hold the stimulus at maximum deviation for a full four seconds and he did not take a full four seconds to move the stimulus across the eyes as required by the NHTSA standards. He also testified that the walk and turn test was conducted on a gravel covered, uneven surface of the road, rather than the flat surface required by NHTSA. The court found that small margins of error that characterize field tests make strict compliance critical. Field tests conducted in a manner that departs from established methods and procedures are inherently unreliable. Accordingly, the tests are an effective means of detecting legal intoxication only when they are administered in the prescribed, standardized manner. It is remarkable that the Ohio court required strict compliance with the NHTSA guidelines and that it declined to consider the field tests for determining probable cause (although the court went on to find probable cause based on erratic driving, odor of alcohol on red and watery eyes). Washington state DUI defense attorneys should be demanding nothing less of the judges in this state every time we litigate a motions hearing. The NHTSA standards used to govern the administration of field tests in Ohio are the same that are used in Washington state DUI trials. The standards are detailed in the NHTSA Student Manual that can be obtained by contacting NHTSA at (405)954-3112.