In a decision that will significantly impact the evidence that can be used against defendants charged with driving under the influence of marijuana (or, as they say in Massachusetts, operating under the influence or “OUI”), The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court recently restricted the extent to which field sobriety tests (FSTs) can be used as evidence of marijuana intoxication at trial. In Massachusetts, if a defendant is charged with OUI for allegedly being under the influence of alcohol, a police officer can testify about the person’s level of intoxication based on how they perform on the FSTs. However, the Court found that police officers may not use their observations of a defendant’s performance on these tests as a basis for drawing a conclusion about whether the defendant was under the influence of marijuana.
The case, Commonwealth v. Gerhardt , stems from a 2013 traffic stop in which the defendant, Thomas Gerhardt, allegedly “failed” multiple FSTs after being pulled over by a state trooper. Based on the defendant’s inability to adequately perform the tasks involved in these FSTs, the officer testified that he came to the conclusion that the defendant was “high” after smoking marijuana. Mr. Gerhardt’s attorney argued that such tests were designed to test one’s alcohol intoxication level and that they do not directly translate to the context of marijuana use. Fortunately for Mr. Gerhardt, the SJC agreed with that argument.
While standard FSTs are generally accepted by courts as reliable representations of a person’s intoxication from alcohol consumption, there is no scientific consensus about whether the tests are indicative of marijuana impairment. According to the SJC’s decision in Gerhardt , scientists have found that, unlike alcohol, which has a relatively predictable effect on most people, marijuana can affect different people in vastly different ways. Because of this variation, the court concluded that the FSTs do not necessarily predict whether a defendant is under the influence of marijuana. Thus, the court concluded that an officer may only testify as to his or her observations of a defendant’s performance on the tests and not about whether he or she concluded that a defendant was under the influence of marijuana based on the defendant’s ability to complete the administered tasks.
Furthermore, after the court’s decision in Gerhardt , an officer may not testify that a defendant “passed” or “failed” any FST, since that language “improperly implies that the FST is a definitive test of marijuana use or impairment.” The court also instructed that officers should avoid calling the FSTs “tests” in these types of cases and should instead refer to the tests as “roadside assessments” to prevent a jury from impropely jumping to a conclusion that the tests are scientific evidence of a defendant’s sobriety or intoxication. Finally, the court included model jury instructions for future trials that will tell juries that evidence of performance on FSTs alone is not sufficient to support a finding that a defendant’s ability to drive safely was impaired due to the consumption of marijuana.
If you are facing criminal charges, including charges that you drove a car while under the influence of marijiuana, please contact James Gribouski or Darren Griffis at Glickman, Sugarman, Kneeland & Gribouski for more information about how they can put their legal knowledge to work for you.