Massachusetts Rules Field Sobriety Tests Can’t Prove You’re High While Driving

As marijuana–either medical or recreational–has seen increasing legalization across the country, the implications of that legalization have led to any number of legal concerns. One of the chief among those has been how police officers will be able to establish that somebody is intoxicated for the purposes of a driving while intoxicated (DWI) charge. Out in Massachusetts, there has finally been a ruling on the issue. However, it has made it even more difficult than ever before for Massachusetts police to prosecute somebody for driving while high.

Massachusetts approved the “”possession, use, distribution, and cultivation of marijuana,” recently. The legalization, taking effect January 1, 2018, is conditioned on regulating marijuana in the same vein as alcohol. Stores selling marijuana have been pushed back to June 2018 over concerns over lack of legal preparation to deal with widespread legalized marijuana.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court made a ruling last week which, in some ways validates these fears.  They have ruled that-for the most part-the usual field sobriety tests can’t be used as evidence that somebody is driving under the influence of marijuana.

sobriety testMr. Gerhardt’s Sticky Situation

The case itself dealt with a man named Thomas Gerhardt. Mr. Gerhardt was pulled over for not having his lights on. However, once he was pulled over the officer reported smelling burned marijuana from his car. When asked if he had marijuana, Mr. Gerhardt responded that he had a couple of marijuana cigarettes in his ashtray-pointing to a couple of mostly consumed marijuana cigarettes. When asked when they were smoked, one passenger said about twenty minutes prior while Mr. Gerhardt said around three hours ago. When asked how much marijuana he had smoked, Mr. Gerhardt replied about a gram.

The officer had Mr. Gerhardt perform several field sobriety tests, standing on one leg, the heel-to-toe walk test, following a finger with his eyes, and reciting the alphabet. For the most part, Mr. Gerhardt had no issues with the tests. However, he was incapable of understanding the instructions of the walk and turn test despite several explanations. In the end, he was incapable of performing the test properly, walking normally instead of heel-to-toe. He was also unable to stay balanced while standing on one leg. The officer took this to imply that that Mr. Gerhardt was impaired by marijuana. This led to charges of driving while under the influence of marijuana-obviously still a crime regardless of legalization.

However, Mr. Gerhardt’s attorneys challenged this evidence. They argued that the tests are fine for establishing that alcohol has impaired a person’s ability to drive but aren’t suited to testing how impaired a person is who has smoked marijuana. After all, a DUI doesn’t happen just because you’ve drank-it’s because you’ve drank to a point of impairment agreed upon to be over .08% BAC after much scientific testing. By the same token, the crime of driving under the influence of marijuana is due to the impairment from the marijuana. But to be guilty, that impairment must be established. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court felt that the research on the correlation between these field tests are being impaired by marijuana just wasn’t there yet.

Scientific Tests as Evidence

There is a strong, well scientifically tested, relationship between these field tests and impairment due to alcohol consumption. That scientific testing simply hasn’t happened when it comes to marijuana. Without diving too deep into the issues of evidentiary law, anything that tends to prove any fact of consequence to a case-or provide a link in a chain towards doing this-is relevant and admissible evidence barring several exceptions.

Scientific tests have the potential to be considered more weighty than they actually are due to a bias towards accepting the validity of such tests. Scientific evidence must be based in sufficient evidence and be a product of reliable principles and methods. This evaluation has largely replaced a previous test requiring the acceptance of a scientific test by the scientific community at large. However, in practice, both tests can be thought of similarly. To be admissible, a test needs to be generally accepted by the scientific community to produce reliable results on an issue. The court didn’t think these field tests had been suitably vetted by the scientific community when it came to marijuana impairment.

In fact, there is quite a bit of disagreement in the scientific community over how effective tests like this are when it comes to detecting marijuana impairment. This is partially because marijuana’s effects vary enormously from person to person. Marijuana also operates very differently from alcohol, so the same tests may not produce as concrete results. Either way, the potential for a jury to look at these tests and weigh them too heavily made their use to prove impairment inadmissible.

How These Tests Can Be Used

This doesn’t mean these field tests can’t be admitted. It just means they can’t be relied on as evidence of actual impairment. They can still be used to show balance, coordination, mental acuity, etc. What’s more, the court ruled that a jury can still use their common sense to translate this into whether somebody was impaired. An officer could testify to appearance (red eyes, etc.), behavior or demeanor, but they couldn’t say somebody was impaired or “high.”

What’s more, under the ruling, no officer or expert could testify that somebody passed or failed such a test as that would imply the test had scientifically conclusive results. Similarly, a witness could not say somebody was or was not impaired based on the results of a field test. In fact, a witness couldn’t even call the field tests a “test” in the first place as this would imply scientific credibility.  Essentially, the ruling says that, no matter what, it must be crystal clear that field tests have no ability to directly test for marijuana impairment.

A Complicated Practical Issue

This ruling makes sense, the scientific research isn’t there to support using field tests to determine marijuana impairment. However, the ruling also highlights a serious issue. State marijuana legalization is becoming more widespread as more and more states vote for medical or recreational legalization. Along with this will come a greater need for law enforcement to be prepared to deal with situations such as pulling somebody over for driving under the influence of marijuana. We’ll need tests sooner rather than later to judge impairment where we can’t use a breathalyzer or similar device to reliably establish how impaired somebody is. Even then, such a device assumes that each person is equally impaired while studies show widely varied effects of marijuana on different people. The law and the technology of the law has some catching up to do–and it needs to do it fast.

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