Do head injuries affect DUI cases in DC?

Updated on December 21st, 2022 at 09:50 pm

Imagine you are driving down a busy street. You are following the laws, driving responsibly, and you are not impaired.

Suddenly, a car hits you from behind. You bang your head off the steering wheel, and now you are feeling 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 drunk driving.

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 test 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 or medical 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, 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 DUI. In Washington DC 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.

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.

Field sobriety testing

There are three field sobriety tests officers are instructed to do: Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus, Walk and Turn, and the One Leg Stand.

Horizontal gaze nystagmus

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, or watery eyes.

A person who has a concussion will exhibit many of these signs as well.

Walk and turn test

In the Walk and Turn test, officers will instruct you to walk a certain number of steps, heel to toe, turn around, and walk back the same number of steps. 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.

One leg stand test

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 concussions often exhibit balance issues, which might lead them to fail the test.

Previous court precedent

Standardized field sobriety tests are what officers use to gauge whether someone should be arrested for a Washington DC DUI, and it is obvious a person with a concussion has an extreme likelihood of failing.

While this issue has yet to be litigated in the Supreme Court, it has been in several 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 injuries 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 other injuries from a motor vehicle accident, contact the experienced DC DUI attorneys at Bruckheim & Patel to help.

Bruckheim & Patel is one of the preeminent law firms in the District of Columbia and has represented hundreds of clients in DUI proceedings, including DUI DC first offenses. They will be your best shot at achieving the best possible outcome for your particular case.

Below are a few of our success stories with clients arrested for Driving Under the Influence after a motor vehicle 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. The odor of alcohol was observed and field tests were conducted on the 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 client was taken to the hospital for treatment. Case dismissed.


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