Two recent North Carolina Court of Appeals opinions help delineate when an officer has probable cause to believe a driver is driving while impaired. In each case, the court of appeals reversed the trial court’s determination that the officer lacked probable cause.
Folks, we have an answer. The court of appeals held yesterday in State v. Younts, ___ N.C. App. ___ (2017), that a law enforcement officer trained to administer a Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN) test may properly testify about the results of a test he administered without any determination by the trial court that HGN testing is scientifically reliable.
Two of last week’s opinions from the North Carolina Supreme Court address significant legal issues arising in impaired driving cases. In State v. Godwin, the supreme court reversed the court of appeals, holding that the trial court was not required to explicitly recognize a law enforcement officer as an expert witness before the officer could testify to the results of a Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN) test. In State v. Romano, the supreme court upheld the court of appeals’ determination that the withdrawal of blood from an unconscious impaired driving defendant violated the Fourth Amendment, notwithstanding a state statute authorizing this practice.
True or False: An officer does not have to be qualified as an expert to testify about horizontal gaze nystagmus in a hearing on a motion to suppress in an impaired driving case.
The question I am most frequently asked these days is some version of the following:
May a law enforcement officer trained in administering the HGN test testify at trial about a defendant’s performance on the test if no other expert testifies about the relationship between nystagmus and impairment by alcohol?
While the answer obviously is either yes or no, there is more than one way to analyze the issue. Since today is Thursday, I’m going to throw it back to Bob Barker and the Price is Right and give you two showcases to consider.
Author’s note: I added the conclusory paragraph at the end of this post shortly after its initial publication in response to helpful questions from readers about the significance of State v. Godwin and State v. Torrence.
Like Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, horizontal gaze nystagmus is a mouthful. Unlike Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, not just anyone can utter horizontal gaze nystagmus and sound wise beyond her years. Two recent court of appeals opinions hold that that a witness be qualified as an expert before testifying about the results of a horizontal gaze nystagmus test.
Jurisprudence over whether officers may testify about defendants’ horizontal gaze nystagmus (HGN) in impaired driving trials has failed to follow a smooth path. In fact, one could fairly note that more than the defendants’ eyes have jumped all over the place. First, our state supreme court said that testimony from a police officer regarding the results of an HGN test performed by the defendant was inadmissible without the evidence establishing that the HGN test was scientifically reliable. State v. Helms, 348 N.C. 578 (1998). The legislature responded by amending Rule 702 in a manner that, according to the court of appeals, “obviat[ed] the need for the state to prove that the HGN testing method is sufficiently reliable” and permitted law enforcement officers trained in administering the HGN test to testify about the defendant’s performance. State v. Smart, 195 N.C. App. 752 (2009). But forget admissibility for a moment. Does HGN evidence prove anything much anyway? A recent unpublished case from the court of appeals indicates that it does not.
With the amendment of Rule 702 of the North Carolina Rules of Evidence in 2011, North Carolina became a Daubert state. That change means that trial judges in this state, like their federal counterparts, serve as gatekeepers when faced with a proffer of expert testimony. See Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, 509 U.S. 579 (1993) … Read more