In December 2014, the Washington State Supreme Court held that the HGN field sobriety test, which can indicate physical signs of alcohol consumption, cannot by itself establish impairment. On August 28, 2011, Washington State Patrol Trooper Stone observed Ryan Quaale driving his truck 56 mph in a 25mph zone on a residential street. The trooper activated his lights and pulled Quaale over. As Trooper Stone approached Quaale, he detected a strong odor of alcohol on Quaale’s breath. Trooper Stone then conducted the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN) test on Quaale. During the HGN test, the trooper observed Quaale’s eyes bounce and had difficulty tracking the stimulus and determined he had probable cause to arrest Quaale. The trooper did not perform any other sobriety tests on Quaale in the field.
Quaale was tried twice. At the first trial, the jury convicted him of attempting to elude but could not agree on a verdict for the DUI charge. During a second trial on the DUI charge, Trooper Stone testified he was a Drug Recognition Expert (DRE) who had been trained in HGN testing. He also explained the importance of HGN testing, the procedures employed in conducting the test, and the degree to which the test measures impairment.
The prosecutor concluded his direct examination of Trooper Stone by asking: “In this case, based on the HGN test alone, did you form an opinion based on your training and experience as to whether or not Mr. Quaale’s ability to operate a motor vehicle was impaired?” Defense counsel objected but was overruled. Trooper Stone answered: “Absolutely. There was no doubt he was impaired.”
In closing, the State argued that the odor of intoxicants and Quaale’s erratic driving supported its theory of driving while impaired by alcohol, but the State primarily relied on the HGN test. Quaale was convicted and appealed arguing that the trooper’s testimony amounted to an improper opinion on guilt. The Court of Appeals reversed Quaale’s DUI conviction based on another issue and ordered a new trial. The court did not reach the issue of the prosecutor’s misconduct and the State filed a petition for review that was granted by the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court held that in this case, the trooper’s opinion based solely on the HGN test was inadmissible under the previous decision in State v. Baity, 140 Wash.2d 1, 991 P.2d 1151 (2000). Trooper Stone’s testimony that he had “no doubt” the defendant was impaired was an improper opinion on the defendant’s guilt and therefore inadmissible. Trooper Stone based his opinion solely on a HGN test, which can indicate physical signs consistent with alcohol consumption. The test, however, cannot establish impairment by itself, and testimony to the contrary violates the limitations imposed by the Supreme Courts decision in Baity.
A officer’s opinion that the results of a voluntary field sobriety test showed the defendant was definitely impaired was inadmissible testimony. State trooper’s opinion testimony that, based on horizontal gaze nystagmus (HGN) test alone, there “was no doubt that [defendant] was impaired,” was inadmissible opinion because it embraced the ultimate issue of the defendant’s guilt—whether Quaale had been intoxicated while he was driving.
Remember, field sobriety tests are voluntary. If you have been arrested for DUI or are facing other similar charges, please contact Blair & Kim, PLLC today to see how a criminal defense attorney might be able to help you.
State of Washington v. Ryan Richard Quaale, 340 P.3d 213 (2014)