Imagine, you are driving down a busy street. You are following the laws, driving responsibly, and you are not impaired. All of a sudden, a car hits you from behind. You hit your head on the steering wheel, and now you feel strange. When the officers arrive, they believe you are acting in an unusual manner. They force you to undergo Standard Field Sobriety Tests. They determine you failed the tests and arrest you for a DUI.
Across the United States, drivers whom officers believe to be impaired undergo certain exercises called Standard Field Sobriety Tests (SFST). These exercises test a person’s ability to maintain balance, follow instructions, and tests their concentration and memory. While there are many issues with these tests, one of their major flaws is they can be heavily swayed by a person’s physical condition.
Common Concussion Symptoms
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, common concussion symptoms include: nausea and vomiting, dizziness, difficulty thinking clearly, unusual behavior, dilated pupils, difficulty remembering new information, balance problems, slurred speech, and in severe cases a loss of consciousness. Meanwhile, common symptoms of alcohol intoxication include confusion or unusual behavior, nausea and vomiting, balance problems, slurred speech, dilated pupils, memory problems, and in severe cases a loss of consciousness.
Going back to the previous hypothetical, the driver of the vehicle sustained a concussion from hitting their head on the steering wheel. Due to this head trauma, the driver showed multiple common concussion symptoms. However, officers misconstrued this as evidence of alcohol intoxication, leading them to arrest the driver for a DUI. In the District of Columbia and around the country, this is not an unusual experience.
Symptoms of concussions and alcohol intoxication materialize in very similar ways. Confusion, unusual behavior, and difficulty thinking clearly may be red flags for officers to investigate if a driver is intoxicated. As stated before, officers will have you undergo SFSTs which test for symptoms of intoxication, but these symptoms are also often experienced by those suffering from a concussion or other head trauma.
The Different Field Sobriety Tests
There are three field sobriety tests officers are instructed to do: Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus, Walk and Turn, and the One Leg Stand. In the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus test, an officer will hold a pen or flashlight in front of your eyes, and instruct you to track the object while they move it back and forth. While you do this, the officer is looking for involuntary movements of your eyes referred to medically as nystagmus, difficulty tracking the object, and dilated, red, and/or watery eyes. A person who has a concussion will exhibit many these signs as well.
In the Walk and Turn test, officers will instruct you to walk a certain amount of steps heel to toe, turn around, and walk back the same amount of steps. In this test, they are testing your balance, concentration, memory, and your ability to follow instructions. The effects of a concussion might inhibit your ability to successfully complete this test as balance and memory issues are common concussion side effects.
And last but not least, the One Leg Stand test evaluates your ability to stand on one leg without using your arms for balance for a certain period of time. As with the Walk and Turn Test, people who have recently suffered a concussion often exhibit balance issues, which might lead them to failing the test.
Previous Court Precedent
These three tests are what officers use to gauge whether or not somebody should be arrested for a DUI, and it is obvious a person with a concussion has an extreme likelihood to fail. While this issue has yet to be litigated in the Supreme Court, it has in a number of high state courts. The Supreme Court of Connecticut in State v. Morelli overturned a guilty verdict due to the effects of head trauma and standard field sobriety tests. The court found the lower court had not properly considered the effects of the defendant’s head trauma when he underwent the tests. In the Court’s ruling they stated, “we agree with … the expert testimony that evidence of a concussion would affect the reliability of the standardized field sobriety tests”.
In the event you are wrongfully arrested for a DUI due to head trauma or otherwise, contact the experienced DC DUI attorneys at Bruckheim & Patel to help. Bruckheim and Patel is one of the preeminent firms in the District of Columbia and has represented hundreds of clients in DUI proceedings. They will be your best shot at achieving the best possible outcome in your particular case.
Below are a few of our success stories with client’s arrested with Driving Under the Influence after an accident. It is important to retain counsel that knows how to fight for your rights and has a history of success.
- Client charged with Driving Under the Influence after colliding with a telephone pole. Odor of alcohol observed and field tests conducted on client. Evidence from station house was suppressed by defense counsel. Client found NOT GUILTY.
- Client charged with Driving Under the Influence after hitting a tree with his vehicle. Client was taken to hospital after injuries from the crash and had an admission of drinking two shots. Client found NOT GUILTY.
- Client charged with Driving Under the Influence after hitting a vehicle in an accident. Client failed field sobriety tests and refused to give a chemical breath sample. Defense counsel was successfully able to keep out HGN results and the refusal from trial due to video preservation issues. Client found NOT GUILTY.
- Client charged with Driving Under the Influence after hitting a stairwell, had a bottle of tequila in the vehicle, officer observed clues of impairment and was taken to the hospital for treatment. Case dismissed.