The Rhomberg balance test is a non-standardized field sobriety test (FST). Police officers give the test in order to gauge whether a DUI suspect is under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs.1
During the administration of the Rhomberg balance test, the DUI suspect is to:
- Stand with his/her feet together
- Have his/her head tilted slightly back
- Have his/her eyes closed
- Estimate the passage of 30 seconds
- When the DUI suspect believes that 30 seconds has passed, he/she should tilt his/her head forward, open his/her eyes, and say “stop.”2
When giving the Rhomberg balance test, police normally keep in mind the following six factors when gauging whether or not a suspect is impaired.
- The amount and direction in which the suspect sways
- The suspect’s estimated passage of 30 seconds
- Eyelid tremors and/or body/leg tremors
- Muscle tone (either more rigid or more flaccid than normal)
- Any statements or unusual sounds made by the subject when performing the test
- Suspect’s overall ability to follow instructions.3
The Rhomberg balance test has not been standardized by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA).
This means that police officers are not required to follow any specific guidelines nor look for any particular clues when conducting the Rhomberg balance test.
This lack of standardization adds unpredictability and irregularity to the testing process. Any qualified DUI lawyer should therefore be able to attack the test in court.
In the article below, our California DUI attorneys will explain:
You may also find it helpful to visit our page on Field Sobriety Tests in DUI cases.
There are a total of three NHTSA standardized field sobriety tests. The Rhomberg balance test is not one of them. The three standardized FSTs are:
These three tests are considered “standardized” as a result of several scientific studies establishing with statistical significance the correlation between the three tests and DUI impairment.5
Nevertheless, non-standardized FSTs such as the Rhomberg balance test are often used by law enforcement to assist in their DUI investigations.
More specifically, along with the Rhomberg balance test, other non-standardized FSTs used by police officers to detect whether or not a suspect is impaired include:
As revealed by our California DUI defense lawyers in subsection four, the Rhomberg balance test is not necessarily a very accurate and/or reliable field sobriety test.
The Rhomberg balance test is fundamentally defined as a divided attention test.6 This essentially means that the Rhomberg test is tailored around having a DUI suspect divide his/her attention between multiple mental and physical tasks simultaneously.7
Below are the instructions normally given by law enforcement officials, including those from the California Highway Patrol (CHP) and the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), when conducting the Rhomberg balance test.
However, because there are no set procedures on how to administer the Rhomberg balance test, the below-mentioned instructions may differ significantly from one officer to another.
Instruct the DUI suspect to stand straight with his/her feet together and arms down to his/her sides.
- This position is to be maintained while the test instructions are given.
- Emphasize to the DUI suspect that he/she must not start the test until told to “start.”
When told to do so, instruct the DUI suspect to tilt his/her head back slightly and close his/her eyes.
- Ensure that the DUI suspect tilts his/her head back prior to closing his/her eyes.
- Closing the eyes first, then tilting the head back, may impair an individual’s normal equilibrium.
Instruct the DUI suspect that when told to “start,” he/she must keep his/her head tilted back with his/her eyes closed until he/she thinks that 30 seconds have passed.
- Do not tell the DUI suspect to count to 30 seconds or use any other specific procedure to keep track of time.
- Do not tell the subject that he/she is not allowed to count to 30 seconds.
When the DUI suspect believes that 30 seconds have passed, he/she should bring his/her head forward, open his/her eyes, and say, “Stop.”8
You should glance at a watch and pick a convenient time to start the test.
- When the subject says “stop,” you should record the passage of time
- If 90 seconds elapse before the subject opens his/her eyes, you should stop the test and ask “How much time was that?”9
Several of the same skills needed to drive a vehicle are tested with the Rhomberg DUI field sobriety test. These tasks include:
- Steady reactions
- Short-term memory
- Small muscle control
- Limb coordination.10
Hence, police officers are able to detect several clues of impairment when a suspect conducts the Rhomberg balance test.
More specifically, California police officers often keep in mind the below-mentioned 6 “clues” in “scoring” whether or not a driver is under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs.
CLUE 1: Subject’s ability to follow instructions
If a driver is intoxicated, then he/she may not have the capacity to correctly follow each and every one of the instructions given by a particular police officer.
CLUE 2: The amount and direction in which the subject sways
Obviously, if the suspect is unable to maintain his balance and/or significantly waves from one side to the other, then an officer may score such noticeable imbalance as an indicator of impairment.
CLUE 3: The suspect’s estimated passage of 30 seconds
Certain substances tend to “speed up” the subject’s internal body clock, resulting in the DUI suspect opening his/her eyes after only 10 or 15 seconds.
Other substances (especially alcohol) may “slow down” the body’s internal clock, resulting in the subject keeping his/her eyes closed for 60 or more seconds.
Either way, the greater the time gap between the suspect’s estimated and actual passage of 30 seconds, the more likely an officer will score such mistiming as a clue that the driver is under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs.
CLUE 4: Eyelid tremors and body/leg tremors
If a suspect exhibits any involuntary and/or reflexive movements, then the investigating officer is likely to interpret such “jerking” as an indicator of impairment.
CLUE 5: Muscle tone
If a suspect’s muscle tone is more rigid or flaccid than normal, then this may be a critical clue for the investigating law enforcement official(s) that the suspect is driving under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs.
CLUE 6: Any statement or unusual sounds made by the suspect when performing the test
When performing the Rhomberg balance test, if the suspect makes any statements (i.e. “I need to urinate”) or sounds (i.e. burping), then an officer may use such sounds or statements to help reinforce his or her suspicions that the suspect is driving while impaired.11
The Rhomberg balance test has not been standardized by NHTSA.
Hence, there are no federal government-approved studies to determine the test’s accuracy and consistency in determining whether or not a particular subject is driving under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs.
Additionally, the procedural administration of the Rhomberg balance test may vary considerably from one police officer to the next.
John Murray, a Ventura County DUI lawyer12 is heralded among his colleagues and clients alike as one of the best DUI criminal defense lawyers in the country. Mr. Murray is highly qualified in discovering and subsequently revealing any blunders on the part of law enforcement during their administration of the Rhomberg field sobriety test.
In terms of the Rhomberg balance test, specific weaknesses ripe for the picking by Mr. Murray and our other California DUI defense lawyers include:
1. Difficulty Understanding Instructions:
If a suspect has problems understanding the officer’s instructions, such as hearing impairment, attention deficit disorder, or language barriers, the test results may be deemed invalid.
2. Non-Standardized Testing:
Considering the lack of NHTSA-approved guidelines to help officers in the administration of the Rhomberg balance field sobriety test, there undeniably lingers much subjectivity in each officer’s decision of whether or not a particular suspect is driving under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs.
3. Coordination Failures Due to Non-Alcohol Related Causes:
A suspect’s lack of correct balancing and/or timing may stem from causes other than alcohol. These include age, illness, prior injuries, uncomfortable footware, unlevel surfaces, and inherent lack of coordination.
4. Invalid/Incorrect Instructions:
Police officers should inform the DUI suspect of the proper positioning and/or timing sequence of the Rhomberg balance test. If the law enforcement official fails to instruct the suspect on how to perform the test, then the suspect’s entire performance may be deemed an unreliable and inaccurate test of impairment.
5. Outside Distractions:
Law enforcement officials should not have the suspect conduct the Rhomberg balance test amid roadside disturbances. If any honking, flashing lights, and/or a countless list of other potential audio/visual disturbances surround the test, then any performance failures during the testing process may be determined unrelated to driver impairment.
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1 California Highway Patrol (December 2007). Memo Re: HPM 70.4. Driving Under the Influence Enforcement Manual. The Romberg Balance FST was among one of the DUI sobriety tests considered by SCRI during its landmark 1977 study. The Rhomberg test was also considered one of the six optimal DUI sobriety tests during a 1974 Finnish study. The Rhomberg test was implemented by the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) during the formation of their Drug Recognition Evaluator (DRE) program and it was accepted by NHTSA due to its unique divided attention qualities.
2 Id., Experienced California officers have indicated that the Rhomberg balance test is an accurate and effective field sobriety test despite the fact that the Rhomberg balance test has not been tested under national government-approved scientific conditions.
4 U.S. Department of Transportation “DWI Detection and Standardized Field Sobriety Testing” NHTSA Student Manual (February 2006).
5 Please see Stuster U.S. Dept. of Transportation Rep. No. Dot-HS-808-839 (1998), at 33; Burns & Moskowitz, Psychophysical Tests for DWI Arrest, U.S. Dept. of Transportation Rep. No. DOT-HS-802-424 (1977) (recommended the three-test battery of one-leg stand, walk and turn, and HGN to aid officers in discriminating BAC level); Anderson, Schweitz & Snyder, Field Evaluation of Behavioral Test Battery for DWI, U.S. Dept. of Transportation Rep. No. DOT-HS-806-475 (1983) (field evaluation of the field sobriety test battery (HGN, one-leg stand, and walk and turn) conducted by police officers from four jurisdictions indicated that the battery was approximately 80% effective in determining BAC above and below .10 percent).
6 California Highway Patrol (December 2007). Memo Re: HPM 70.4. Driving Under the Influence Enforcement Manual.
12 John Murray is a DUI criminal defense attorney qualified by NHTSA to administer field sobriety tests, in connection with DUI roadside investigations. Mr. Murray practices in Ventura and Los Angeles Counties, including Simi Valley, Van Nuys, San Fernando, Lancaster, Glendale and Burbank.