Local News

Eye Tests Become Evidence for Drunken-Driving Cases

Posted December 2, 2006

A new law may make it easier to prosecute people who drink and drive just by looking in their eyes, but not everyone is in favor of the change.

Eye tests known as horizontal gaze nystagmus are routinely done during field sobriety tests, but the results previously couldn't be used as evidence.

Raleigh police officers are now in the process of getting national certification so they can testify about test results in court. They have spent a total of 24 hours in the classroom and one night practicing on volunteers who signed up to drink alcohol for the practical exam.

The group of volunteers gathered at the Raleigh Police Department Training Center in North Raleigh and began drinking about 5:30 p.m. Friday. Once they became impaired, the officers in training looked for involuntary jerks in their eyes.

"Somebody who drinks a lot of alcohol, maybe even a functioning alcoholic, can perhaps walk very well, maybe stand on one leg," said Raleigh Police Sgt. Tim Tomczak. "But because this jerking is involuntary, there is nothing they can do from preventing the officer from seeing it in their eyes."

But some experts have argued that the test is subjective.

"What may appear to somebody to be involuntary twitching of the eye may be the effect of wind on the side of the road, or it may be the passage of traffic or the fact that there are bright blinking lights," said defense attorney Karl Knudsen.

But prosecutors and police officials said that with the right training, officers would quickly learn that the eyes don't lie.

Kimberly Overton, a traffic safety resource prosecutor with the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys, is currently traveling across the state and training judges, prosecutors and law enforcement on the new law. She said when officers complete their training, they would know how to position the suspect so that possible distractions don't affect the outcome of the test.

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