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Officer Opinion of Impairment in DWI Cases

In many DWI cases, a law enforcement officer will testify that after making certain observations of the defendant, he formed an opinion that the defendant had consumed a “sufficient amount of alcohol” that the defendant was “appreciably impaired.” Sometimes a defendant will argue that this opinion should not be admissible. However, North Carolina courts typically allow this opinion testimony to be admitted if there is sufficient evidence on which to base the opinion.

The opinion of a law enforcement officer regarding whether a defendant is intoxicated is treated as lay witness testimony. G.S. 8C-1 Rule 701 states that

If the witness is not testifying as an expert, his testimony in the form of opinions or inferences is limited to those opinions or inferences which are (a) rationally based on the perception of the witness and (b) helpful to a clear understanding of his testimony or the determination of a fact in issue.

The North Carolina Supreme Court case that many opinions cite regarding the admissibility of this type of opinion testimony is State v. Lindley (1974). In Lindley, the Court began its analysis of the law by noting that

Opinion evidence is generally inadmissible whenever the witness can relate the facts so that the jury will have an adequate understanding of them and the jury is as well qualified as the witness to draw inferences and conclusions from the facts. If either of these conditions is absent, the evidence is admissible.

However, the Court explained that the testimony of a lay witness “will not be excluded on the ground that it is a mere expression of opinion” “if by reason of opportunities for observation he is in a position to judge of the facts more accurately than those who have not had such opportunities.”

The Court concluded its analysis of the law by stating that

It is a familiar rule of evidence in this jurisdiction that a lay witness who has personally observed a person may give his opinion as to whether that person was under the influence of intoxicants. Likewise, we have held in recent cases that a lay witness may state his opinion as to whether a person is under the influence of drugs when he has observed the person and such testimony is relevant to the issue being tried.

In Lindley, the officer “observed the erratic manner in which defendant operated his car, observed his personal demeanor, the white substance on his lips, his pinpoint pupils, the absence of alcohol on his breath, his lack of muscular coordination, his mental stupor, and the way he walked, acted and talked.” The Court also stated that it was “especially significant” that the officer’s interrogation of the defendant “eliminated many other causes which might have accounted for defendant's condition” because “he ascertained that defendant was not a diabetic, had no physical defects, was not sick, did not limp, had not been injured, had not seen a doctor or dentist lately, and had not been taking any kind of medication.” Therefore, the Court held that “under these facts a patrol officer with five years' experience in enforcement of the motor vehicle laws” “was better qualified than the jury to draw inferences and conclusions from what he saw and heard.”

The North Carolina Supreme Court again weighed in on this issue in 2000 in the case State v. Rich. In Rich, the officer testified on cross-examination that his only personal observation of the defendant was observing a strong to moderate odor of alcohol. The defendant argued that “an odor [of alcohol], standing alone, is no evidence that [a driver] is under the influence of an intoxicant.” While the Court did not dispute this statement, it noted that “the [f]act that a motorist has been drinking, when considered in connection with faulty driving ... or other conduct indicating an impairment of physical or mental faculties, is sufficient prima facie to show a violation of [N.C.G.S. §] 20-138.” The officer in Rich did observe the accident scene and spoke with witnesses who observed the defendant driving at an excessive speed just before the accident. Because the officer based his opinion that the defendant was intoxicated “not only on the odor of alcohol, but also on his investigation of the accident and upon his experience enforcing traffic laws and dealing with intoxicated drivers,” the officer’s opinion was admissible.

Although the Court in Rich noted that the officer’s “testimony was offered as evidence which tended to show that defendant acted with malice, not that defendant was impaired,” the court of appeals used the holding in Rich to support the admissibility of an officer’s opinion in a DWI case in 2004. In State v. Speight, the officer detected an odor of alcohol on the defendant’s breath and in the car. The officer also observed the accident scene and interviewed four or five witnesses who told him about the defendant’s erratic driving. Finally, the officer had been employed for five years as a traffic safety police officer. Because these facts were “almost identical” to Rich, the officer’s “lay opinion that defendant was impaired was sufficiently based upon his perception of defendant and his observations at the scene of the accident” and therefore admissible.

The court of appeals later discussed how an officer’s lay opinion testimony was related to the administration of field sobriety tests in 2005 in the case State v. Streckfuss. In that case, the deputy saw the defendant going twenty mph over the speed limit and unable to maintain a “steady, straight line in his lane of traffic” so he pulled the defendant over. When the deputy approached the vehicle and the defendant rolled down the window, the deputy smelled a “strong odor of alcoholic beverage emanating from the vehicle.” The defendant also admitted that he had consumed “a couple of drinks.” Other observations that the deputy made included that the defendant’s “eyes were kind of red and glassy and his speech was slightly slurred.” The defendant failed three times the field sobriety test which required him to stand on one foot. Then the deputy formed an opinion that the “defendant's mental and physical capacities were impaired” and arrested the defendant.

The defendant argued that the deputy should not be allowed to testify regarding the field sobriety tests because the State did not establish that the deputy was qualified to properly administer and interpret the tests. The trial court ruled that the deputy could not testify

that he believed defendant to be impaired because defendant failed the tests; however, he could testify that he formed an opinion that defendant was impaired when [the deputy] asked defendant to stand on one leg and defendant started to hop and then fell over. In other words, [the deputy]  was permitted to testify as a lay witness, rather than as an expert.

Citing Lindley and Rich, the court of appeals agreed that the deputy was permitted to give his opinion as to whether the defendant was intoxicated because it was based on his personal observations.

If you have been charged with impaired driving, visit www.rflaw.net for legal help.

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