Illinois Supreme Court Limits DUI Sobriety Test

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In a sweeping decision, the Illinois Supreme Court placed limits on the police use of a sobriety test that had gone unchallenged in Illinois for the past 25 years.

In a sweeping decision, the Illinois Supreme Court placed limits on the police use of a sobriety test that had gone unchallenged in Illinois for the past 25 years. This case (People v. McKown (2010) --- N.E.2d ----, 2010 WL 572082 (Ill.) (McKown II) has been closely followed by police departments, prosecutors, and courts throughout the country, where similar challenges have been mounted against the test since it was first introduced by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 1982.

The eye test known as horizontal gaze nystagmus or 'HGN', has been employed by police officers throughout the country since then, for determining whether someone was over the legal limit of 0.08. There are over 1.5 million drunk driving arrests every year in the United States, and virtually every police officer has used this test to determine whether a person was over 0.08 and hence 'under the influence'.

The Illinois Supreme Court ordered a special hearing involving national experts to determine the HGN test's scientific reliability and accuracy. Today the Illinois Supreme Court found that the eye test was improperly admitted into evidence, and threw out McKown's conviction.

McKown's attorney, Donald Ramsell, is himself a certified instructor under NHTSA standards for HGN testing. Ramsell had argued that the test is 'voodoo science'; too unreliable to be used as proof of intoxication, and that limits needed to be placed on the use of the test as evidence. The Illinois Supreme Court agreed, barring the use of the test as proof that a driver was over .08 (the legal limit) and barring its use as anything more than a possibility of intoxication, instead of proof of actual guilt, as it had been previously used in Illinois. Ramsell also argued that the police officer in McKown's case was not properly and adequately trained, and that stricter standards were needed before the test can be used in evidence. The Illinois Supreme Court agreed. Eye tests (HGN) will no longer be allowed into evidence for anything more than the possibility of impairment.

"The citizens of Illinois have received added protections against misuse of evidence and false DUI arrests and convictions as a result of the Supreme Court's opinion today," said Ramsell. "No longer will the police be able to use voodoo science in order to gain convictions in DUI cases in Illinois." This ruling confirms that the only legitimate means to measure alcohol concentrations of drivers are blood tests and breath tests. "Reading eyeballs for alcohol levels is no more scientific than reading tea leaves," stated Ramsell.

Ramsell believes that it is possible that based upon the limits of its use, that police may abandon it altogether. The Illinois Supreme Court ruling will now limit the use of the eye test to only the possibility of consumption of alcohol, and the possibility that a person may be impaired, a significant reduction of its use in previous DUI cases. "Courts throughout the United States are likely to review this test in light of this decision," says Ramsell. Ramsell notes that similar challenges are already taking place in other states across the country, including Kansas.

Donald Ramsell has defended over 13,000 DUI cases since 1986. Don is the author of “Illinois DUI Law & Practice Guidebook”. He is the past chair of the Illinois State Bar Association Traffic Law Committee and past president of the DuPage County Bar Association.

CONTACT: Donald Ramsell
630-697-6451 (cell)


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