Romberg Balance Test – Field Sobriety Tests in New Jersey
Summary: Police frequently use the Romberg balance test as a roadside field sobriety test to justify a DWI arrest. However, this test has no objective standard of measurement and can be deeply unfair to drivers.
When you’ve been pulled over by police in New Jersey under suspicion of driving while intoxicated (DWI), the officer can administer field sobriety tests on the side of the road. These assorted physical and mental tests are given in an attempt to establish probable cause for a DUI arrest. In New Jersey, police can use the standardized field sobriety tests with clear standards provided by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) as well as non-standardized tests. This is true even though non-standardized tests have no accepted and objective measurement scale.
The Romberg balance test is one of several non-standardized field sobriety tests often used by police at traffic stops. The test is administered in order to determine the mental and physical fitness of the driver and whether they have been affected due to the effects of drugs or alcohol. Lacking a standard of measurement, however, the assessment of the Romberg test is left up to an individual police officer. Even more, this test, like other field sobriety tests, can often pick up on physical illnesses, disabilities or fatigue at least as much as intoxication.
What Is the Romberg Balance Test?
The Romberg balance test was named for Moritz Heinrich Romberg, a German neurologist. It was not invented to measure intoxication but as a tool to assess neurological function.
The test functions on the basis that two of three bodily functions are necessary for a person to maintain his or her balance. Therefore, it seeks to measure vision, vestibular function (inner-ear functions such as equilibrium, motion and orientation in space) and proprioception (the understanding of how a person’s limbs are oriented). When people cannot balance themselves using two of these bodily functions, the Romberg test indicates that a neurological problem may be present. If police use it as a field sobriety test, the same result is seen as an indication of intoxication.
How the Romberg Balance Test Is Administered
Police will instruct the driver to get out of the car and stand up with his or her feet together. The driver will be told to tilt his or her head back with eyes closed. Next, the police will tell the driver to keep his or her head tipped back for 30 seconds. The driver will be asked to determine when 30 seconds have passed and, after that time, to say “stop” and move his or her head back to an upright position.
The police officer will look for six clues or signs of intoxication while the driver performs the test:
- Tremors of the body or eyelids
- Swaying to a certain amount or direction
- Accuracy of the estimation of when 30 seconds have passed
- Muscle tone
- Statements and sounds made
- Driver’s ability to follow directions
Why the Romberg Balance Test Is Unfair to Drivers
In many cases, drivers fail the Romberg test because it can be very difficult to accurately gauge when 30 seconds have passed. When drivers overestimate the length of time, the police may conclude that the driver is under the influence of alcohol. Conversely, if the driver underestimates the length of 30 seconds, the police may believe that the driver has taken some kind of stimulant.
Throughout the test, the driver is standing next to a busy street, often with traffic sounds and other noises providing significant distraction. In addition, as the Romberg balance test was designed as a test of neurological function, not of intoxication, it can pick up on other physical disabilities and problems. It can be particularly difficult for drivers who are elderly, overweight or dealing with actual neurological conditions to perform well on the test. Drivers who are physically tired, rather than mentally impaired through alcohol intoxication, may be likely to sway, waver or show tremors throughout the 30-second period.
Challenging the Results of This Field Sobriety Test
Police administer this test in order to obtain probable cause for a DWI arrest, not to accurately determine a person’s state of intoxication. There are no standardized assessment tools for the test approved by the NHTSA. This means that a skilled DWI defense lawyer can challenge the results of the Romberg balance test in court along with other police and prosecution assertions.
In court, prosecutors must prove DUI charges beyond a reasonable doubt. Working with an experienced New Jersey DWI lawyer, you can challenge the results of the Romberg balance tests and try to avoid a conviction. If you’re facing DWI allegations, call the office of Denis F. Driscoll today to make an appointment for a consultation.