In a recent criminal law matter, the Supreme Court of Connecticut found that a trial court did not abuse its discretion in allowing into evidence the results of a horizontal gaze nystagmus test (nystagmus test), because its administration satisfied a two-part admissibility requirement.
This case arose from an incident that occurred in the early morning hours of December 18, 2005. The defendant was involved in a single-car accident after consuming several alcoholic beverages. Suspecting the defendant was intoxicated after making observations of his appearance and demeanor, a police officer administered several field sobriety tests, including the nystagmus test, all of which the defendant either failed or was unable to perform. The defendant was then arrested for and charged with operating a motor vehicle while under the influence (OMVUI) of alcohol in violation of General Statutes § 14-227a, among other charges.
Prior to trial, the defendant filed a motion in limine seeking to exclude all evidence related to the nystagmus test. He argued that “it had not been administered according to the ‘strict’ standards established by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration” (NHTSA). The court denied the motion, stating that compliance with the NHTSA standards “went to the weight of the evidence, not its admissibility.” After the officer who performed the nystagmus test testified at trial, the defendant filed a motion to strike, which was denied. The defendant was convicted on all counts and thereafter appealed.
The nystagmus test is one of three standard field sobriety tests administered by police officers in Connecticut when they suspect that an individual is intoxicated. In a previous case, the Appellate Court described what this test involves:
To administer the [nystagmus] test, the officer positions a stimulus approximately twelve to eighteen inches away from and slightly above the subject’s eyes. The stimulus, usually a pen or the officer’s finger, is then moved slowly from the midline of the nose to maximum deviation, the farthest lateral point to which the eyes can move to either side. The officer observes the subject’s eyes as he tracks the stimulus and looks for six clues, three for each eye, to determine whether the subject passes or fails the test. The officer looks for (1) the inability of each eye to track movement smoothly, (2) pronounced nystagmus at maximum deviation and (3) the onset of nystagmus at an angle less than forty-five degrees in relation to the center point. A finding of four clues indicates failure of the test and is a sign of intoxication.
State v. Commins, 83 Conn. App. 496, 499 (2004). However, nystagmus test evidence can potentially mislead a jury. As such, the State must “lay a proper foundation” regarding the credentials of the person who administered the test, and that the administration itself “was conducted in accordance with generally accepted standards,” such as those promulgated by the NHTSA.
In this case, the Supreme Court found that the State laid the proper foundation regarding the officer’s credentials, and that the manner in which she administered the nystagmus test complied with NHTSA regulations. At trial, the officer testified that she received training in both the administration of field sobriety tests and the interpretation of their results. In particular, she stated that she received “advanced training” from the NHTSA. Furthermore, her description of how she administered the test to the defendant was deemed proper by the Court. More telling, the defendant had the opportunity on cross-examination to call into question the weight of this evidence. Therefore, the Supreme Court did not view admission of this testimony as an abuse of discretion by the trial court.
When faced with a charge of operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated (a.k.a. driving under the influence), an individual is best served by consulting with an experienced criminal law practitioner. Should you have any questions regarding criminal defense, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya in the firm’s Westport office in Fairfield County at 203-221-3100 or at JMaya@Mayalaw.com.
Written by Lindsay E. Raber, Esq.