On January 6, 2017 the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court will hear oral arguments in the case of Commonwealth v. Thomas Gerhardt. This case raises the issue of whether field sobriety tests, which are routinely used to determine whether someone is under the influence of alcohol, can additionally be used to be determine if someone is driving under the influence of marijuana. Field sobriety tests have been studied extensively with relation to alcohol, and they are accepted as being proper evidence in the prosecution of driving under the influence of alcohol. However, the field sobriety tests have never been studied with regards to whether or not they can help determine if a person is impaired by marijuana. Attorney DelSignore filed an Amicus Brief on behalf of the National DUI College, an organization he has been a member of since 2007.
A judge in the district court ruled that these tests are inadmissible because they are unreliable and do not have any scientific support behind them. The judge concluded that whether someone passes or fails a nine step walk and turn or a one-leg stand does not help a jury determine whether the defendant is under the influence of marijuana. The Government argued that these tests do in fact have relevance because a persons reduced balance and the ability to follow instructions is a correlated with impairment by marijuana just as it is for alcohol.
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court will have to determine whether the trial judge was correct to rule that the evidence should be inadmissible at a trial. The judge’s decision was very well reasoned and based on the scientific studies that were presented to him by the parties in court. Simply put, the judge did not have any evidence to show any correlation between the passing or failing of field sobriety tests and the impairment of marijuana.
A second issue in the case is whether officers can offer opinion evidence on someone who they believe to be under the influence of marijuana. The judge concluded that an officer cannot render an opinion as to whether or not someone is impaired by marijuana. This is because, unlike alcohol, where people have familiarity with the substance, an officer cannot always determine whether someone may have used marijuana. The judge found that scientific literature does not show that the average person can determine whether someone is impaired by marijuana. This is because, while marijuana use is more prevalent, it still does not have widespread usage in society and there is no agreed upon signs of impairment within the scientific community in regards to the substance. Accordingly, it was concluded that an officer would have to be qualified as an expert in order to render an opinion on whether someone was under the influence of marijuana.
The arguments that the Supreme Judicial Court will address this week will help to determine how cases of impairment by marijuana are prosecuted in court. Prosecutors may have to retrain officers in order to have this evidence of impairment admitted into court. The SJC decision will help to clarify and define how exactly a marijuana case can be proven in court.
You can view a video blog on this case here. To review the Court filings and briefs in the case, you can click on this link to the Massachusetts Supreme Court page pertaining to the Gerhardt case.
To learn more about OUI marijuana cases feel free to watch a video or view the DelSignore Law Facebook page which has updates on Massachusetts OUI law. Or you can contact Attorney DelSignore at (781) 686- 5924.