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Is the Romberg Balance Test Accurate?

 Posted on January 01, 2020 in Uncategorized

Most drivers are familiar with the standardized field sobriety tests. Individually, these tests include the walk-and-turn, the one-legged stand, and horizontal gaze nystagmus tests. These tests are problematic under the best circumstances even when just used to detect alcohol intoxication, but they have no scientific basis or validity for testing for drugs.

As states steadily move toward legalizing marijuana, law enforcement faces additional issues with field sobriety testing. The standardized field sobriety tests were created with alcohol in mind and are of limited use when marijuana is suspected. Another, non-standardized, field sobriety test that some law enforcement agencies are turning to with marijuana DWI cases is known as the Romberg Balance Test.

Understanding the Modified Romberg Balance Test

The first thing to note about the Romberg Balance Test is that its purpose is not to measure a person's balance. The Romberg Test requires a person suspected of DWI to:

  • Stand up straight with feet together
  • Tilt their head back slightly
  • Close their eyes
  • Silently estimate when 30 seconds have elapsed
  • After 30 seconds, tilt their head forward and say "stop."

There are several factors that the police will look for during this test. Primarily, the officer will check to see how close to 30 seconds the person's estimate is. Allegedly, those under the influence of marijuana are more like to wait for a full minute before announcing stop. The other factors law enforcement considers include:

  • Whether eyelids or the body tremors
  • Whether the person sways while standing
  • Whether a person is tense
  • Any sounds or statements made by the person.

The Romberg Balance Test is not recognized as a standardized field sobriety test, which means the NHTSA does not generate official guidelines for the use of this test. While standardized tests come with a set number of clues that indicate intoxication, this is not the case with the Romberg test. Because of this fluidity, the value and reliability of this police tool are of dubious validity.

Reliability of the Romberg Test

There is little evidence to suggest this test is accurate in identifying any form of intoxication. Because the test is not standardized, the NHTSA has yet to study its accuracy. This is a medical tool to determine the amount of sway with eyes wide open versus eyes closed to determine a neurological injury. Police modified the Romberg by having them tilt a person's head back, which causes fluid in the cochlea of the inner ears to create balance instability. Further, police added an unproven component of guessing 30 seconds with no validation studies to determine if this is accurate or even come up with a mean value. There is no comparison between the amount of sway with eyes open or eyes closed. Police are allowed to subjectively measure sway as there is no predetermined amount of sway allowable before sway is scored as a clue of impairment.

This lack of standardization causes a host of problems. Without standardized clues or guidelines, there is no guarantee that the instructions given to a person are consistent and clear. If that person is unable to understand the instructions, they are unlikely to comply with them.

Further and much like with the standardized field sobriety tests, there are countless reasons why a failed test might not be the result of alcohol or drug impairment. Many people are simply unable to estimate time accurately, particularly when under stress of arrest. When a test potentially results in a false positive, its value is limited.

How a Houston Board Certified DWI Defense Attorney Can Help

Attorney Doug Murphy has extensive experience in showing a jury the deficiencies of field sobriety tests. If you were arrested in part on the results of these tests, it is important that you seek legal counsel as soon as possible. To discuss your legal options, set up a free case evaluation with the Doug Murphy Law Firm, P.C. right away.

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