What Is The Standard For Standardized Field Sobriety Tests In Ohio?

Standardized field sobriety tests are administered in nearly every OVI (DUI) case in central Ohio. But what it the standard for admitting the field sobriety tests as evidence in an OVI (DUI) trial? To answer this question, we must look at decisions by the Ohio Supreme Court, legislation by the Ohio General Assembly, and the manual published by the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration.

What has the Ohio Supreme Court said? In 2000, the Ohio Supreme Court held that, for the results of field sobriety tests to serve as probable cause to justify an arrest, the tests must be administered in strict compliance with standardized testing procedures. State v. Homan. The Court stated, “When field sobriety testing is conducted in a manner that departs from established methods and procedures, the results are inherently unreliable.” In 2004, the Ohio Supreme Court held that, for the results of field sobriety tests to be admissible at trial, the tests must be administered in compliance with standardized testing procedures. State v. Schmitt.

What has the Ohio legislature said? The legislature apparently did not approve of the result in Homan. In 2002, the Ohio General Assembly amended Ohio Revised Code section 4511.19(D). The amended statute provides that, if the prosecution demonstrates by clear and convincing evidence that the tests were administered in substantial compliance with testing standards, then: (1) the officer may testify concerning the results of the tests; (2) the prosecution may introduce the results of the tests; and (3) the Court shall admit such evidence if it is admissible under the Rules of Evidence. R.C. 4511.19(D)(4)(b).

So what is substantial compliance? In 2007, the Ohio Supreme Court held that the substantial compliance standard of R.C. 4511.19(D) does not violate the Ohio Constitution. State v. Boczar. Although the Ohio Supreme Court has not defined substantial compliance in the context of field sobriety tests, that Court did stated that substantial compliance means complying with procedures to the extent that the only errors are de minimus. State v. Burnside (2003), 100 Ohio St.3d 152.

What does the manual say? The manual that contains the standards for administering the tests is “DWI Detection and Standardized Field Sobriety Testing“, published by the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA). On page VIII-19, the manual states: “It is necessary to emphasize this validation (of the tests) applies only when: *The tests are administered in the prescribed standardized manner *The standardized clues are used to assess the suspect’s performance *The standardized criteria are employed to interpret that performance. If any one of the standardized field sobriety test elements is changed, the validity is compromised.”

How do we synthesize the manual, the legislation, and the decisions? We can determine if the officer substantially complied with testing standards by looking at the language of the NHTSA manual and the language of Burnside. If the officer changes any one element of the field sobriety tests (how the test is administered and how the suspect’s performance is interpreted), the validity of the test is compromised. Any error that compromises the validity of the test certainly is no “de minimus”.

Why does this matter? If officers do not substantially comply with the standards of the NHTSA manual, the results of the field sobriety tests may not be used for determining probable cause, and the results of the tests may not be admissible in trial. Given that nearly every OVI (DUI) case involves field sobriety tests, the standard of admissibility for standardized tests is very important.