In a recent Minnesota Court of Appeals decision, State v. Ards, the appellant challenged his convictions for second-degree DWI and second-degree driving with an alcohol concentration greater than .08 on the basis of insufficient evidence.
The initial arrest took place back in December of 2010, when a St. Paul police officer, Tonya Tamm, responded to a report of a driver in a pickup truck arguing with a pedestrian. Officer Tamm arrived and after pursuing the truck for a while, stopped the driver. Upon inspection, appellant was found to smell strongly of alcohol, have bloodshot, watery eyes and slurred speech. The appellant admitted to having had five alcoholic drinks before driving. Officer Tamm asked the appellant to exit the vehicle where he went on to fail a series of field sobriety tests. The appellant then consented to a breath test which found he had a blood alcohol concentration of .11, well in excess of the legal limit.
The appellant was arrested and charged. At trial, Officer Tamm offered testimony regarding the stop, appellant’s appearance, his level of intoxication, and how the Intoxilyzer test was administered. Appellant was ultimately convicted by the jury on both counts. He then appealed the conviction, arguing that the district court violated his right to a fair trial by allowing Officer Tamm to offer “expert opinion testimony” on the sole issue before the jury: appellants’ impairment.
The appellant claims Officer Tamm’s testimony amounted to that of an expert based on the prosecution’s characterization of Tamm as “experienced” and having “specialized training.” Tamm admitted on the stand to having undergone the required training for officers to detect impaired drivers and to having been involved in over 100 DWI arrests and investigations. Appellant says the testimony should not have been admitted because it was that of an expert and concerned the ultimate issue before the jury. The state disagreed, saying that Tamm was merely offering her an account of her observations.
The Minnesota Court of Appeals rejected appellant’s argument, saying that Officer Tamm testified only about her personal observation of the defendant. The Court pointed to a Minnesota Supreme Court holding that says a layperson is entitled to testify regarding his or her opinion of a person’s intoxication. The Court decided that Officer Tam’s special training and experience did not serve to convert her observational testimony into expert testimony, something which would have prevented her from offering her opinion on appellant’s impairment.
The only other issue regarding the admissibility of Officer Tamm’s testimony was whether it had the proper foundation. Previous cases say that a proper foundation for giving an opinion regarding intoxication exists when a person has observed someone’s “manner of walking and standing, manner of speech, appearances of eyes and face, and odor, if any, upon such person’s breath.” The Court found that Officer Tamm observed several of these indicia of intoxication, thus firmly establishing the foundation for her to testify as to appellant’s level of intoxication.
To read the full opinion, click here.