Balance Testing in Field Sobriety

Balance Testing in Field Sobriety

In the mid-nineteenth century, a European neurologist named Dr. Moritz Heinrich Romberg developed a balance test to diagnose disease. The innovative Romberg test is still being used by doctors today, and, as an experienced Orange County DUI lawyer can tell you, the test is also used as a field sobriety measure by police. But does it work for this specific application?

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The Basic Romberg test

The Romberg test typically requires patients to stand with their feet together, hands at their side. The head is tilted back with the eyes closed. Modifications of this position include standing heel to toe rather than with feet together, holding the arms out in front of the body, or maintaining one of the positions while touching a finger to the nose.

In a medical setting, a neurologist is looking for swaying or lost balance as a symptom of disease, injury, age, or illness in a patient. But there is an important difference between clinical tests and field tests. In a doctor’s office, a patient is assessed for a baseline or starting point indicating their ability to perform the test—for example, with the eyes open at first. Once a starting point of performance is recorded, the test can be repeated with eyes closed.

Establishing a Baseline

As an Orange County DUI lawyer could confirm, when police administer the Romberg test in the field, no baseline is measured. This means that any sway or imbalance on the part of the subject is assumed to be due to intoxication. However, the test’s reliability and interpretation depend on the comparison between a baseline level and the observed change with eyes closed.

In theory, an alternative to gathering a baseline for comparison purposes would be to establish the average level of performance in the general population. However, sober individuals vary greatly in their performance on balance tests so a general comparison would not and could not be valid.

Nevertheless, the Romberg test is still widely used by law enforcement, so it’s important to work with an attorney who is knowledgeable of its intended medical use and its limitations. Call Coffey & Coffey at (800) 706-7888 to speak with an experienced Orange County DUI lawyer today.