Overruling decisions from a trial and appellate court, the State Supreme Court of Illinois determined the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN) Test lacked the general acceptance in the relevant scientific community to be admissible absent proof to the contrary from the prosecution in a ruling from September 2007.
The State of Illinois Supreme Court overturned the rulings of a trial court and appellate court with regard to entering HGN results as evidence in determining the alcohol impairment of defendant Joanne McKown when she was arrested by police in June, 2002. McKown had veered into oncoming traffic, causing three motorcyclists to be thrown from their vehicles in Peoria County. Two of the three riders suffered serious injury.
High Court Orders Evidentiary Hearing
The state’s high court remanded the case to the Circuit Court of Peoria County, ordering an evidentiary hearing pursuant to Frye vs. United States (1923). Neither of the lower courts held such a hearing at McKown’s trial, accepting the reliability of the HGN test in determining alcohol impairment based on previous state court opinions. In both trials, the court admitted testimony of the arresting police officer who tested McKown for HGN.
At the first trial, McKown was found guilty of two counts of aggravated driving under the influence of alcohol, two counts of aggravated reckless driving, one count of reckless driving and one count of driving under the influence of alcohol. Damaging evidence consisted of three eyewitnesses and the opinion of the police officer who administered the HGN test at the scene.
Keep Your Eye on the Light…
The HGN test measures involuntary, erratic eyeball movement to the left and right while a miniature flashlight is shone into the person’s pupil. With a normal eye, there will be some “jerking” of the eyeball but in the eyeball of one who is intoxicated, there is more “jerking” to the left or to the right when the eyeball is closer to center position. Such movement also can be the result of other illnesses or causes. The test was devised by the National Highway Safety Traffic Association. Instructions are standard in the NHSTA’s DWI Detection and Standardized Field Sobriety Test Instructor Manual.
Witnesses at the accident scene said McKown was speeding. The approaching officer noticed an open can of beer inside the vehicle. That officer testified at trial the defendant had bloodshot eyes, slurred speech and breath smelling of beer. McKown admitted to having consumed three cans of beer before opening a fourth can after the accident.
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