State v. Pjura

Decision Date12 February 2002
Docket Number(AC 20150)
PartiesSTATE OF CONNECTICUT v. JAMES PJURA
CourtConnecticut Court of Appeals

Foti, Schaller and Dupont, Js. James O. Ruane, with whom, on the brief, was Lori A. McCarthy, for the appellant (defendant).

Ronald G. Weller, assistant state's attorney, with whom, on the brief, were Eugene Callahan, state's attorney, and Robert S. Katz, former senior assistant state's attorney, for the appellee (state).

Opinion

SCHALLER, J.

The defendant, James Pjura, appeals from the judgment of conviction, rendered after a jury trial, of operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of intoxicating liquor in violation of General Statutes § 14-227a (a) (1). The defendant claims that the trial court improperly (1) allowed opinion testimony by a state police trooper that the defendant was under the influence of alcohol and (2) admitted evidence of the horizontal gaze nystagmus (HGN) test. We affirm the judgment of the trial court.

The following facts and procedural history are relevant to our disposition of the defendant's appeal. Shortly after midnight on April 26, 1998, Trooper Aaron Huntsman of the Connecticut state police drove his cruiser off to the right side of Interstate 95 to set up a radar post. Just after establishing his position, Huntsman observed the defendant's vehicle traveling in the highway's breakdown lane. The vehicle came within one foot of hitting Huntsman's cruiser. Huntsman turned on his police lights and siren, and began to pursue the defendant. He followed the defendant for one-half mile along the highway and then off an exit. Onequarter mile later, Huntsman managed to force the defendant to stop by boxing his vehicle in between the cruiser and a large rock.

As Huntsman approached the vehicle, the defendant rolled down the window. On the basis of the defendant's appearance, manner and odor, Huntsman suspected that the defendant was intoxicated. He asked the defendant to get out of the car to perform standard field sobriety tests. The first test Huntsman administered was the HGN. That test assesses a driver's visual ability to track an object smoothly. Huntsman next administered the walk and turn test, which required the defendant to walk heel to toe in a straight line. Last, Huntsman administered the one-leg stand test, in which the defendant had to raise one foot off the ground and count for thirty seconds.

After further observation and a determination that the defendant had failed the three field tests, Huntsman arrested the defendant for operating a vehicle while under the influence of intoxicating liquor. At trial, Huntsman testified, as an expert witness on drunken driving, about his observations and testing of the defendant. The jury returned a verdict of guilty, and the defendant appealed. Additional facts will be set forth as necessary.

I

The defendant first claims that it was improper for the court to allow a state trooper to offer expert testimony as to whether the defendant was intoxicated. The defendant argues that it was improper, first, because the testimony concerned the ultimate issue of fact in the case, and second, because the jury was capable of understanding the subject matter on its own.

A

The defendant argues that it was improper for the court to allow expert testimony as to whether he was intoxicated because that was the ultimate issue in the case. We do not agree.

At the outset, we set forth our standard of review. It is well established that "[t]he trial court has wide discretion in ruling on the admissibility of expert testimony and, unless that discretion has been abused or the error is clear and involves a misconception of the law, its ruling will not be disturbed." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) State v. McNally, 39 Conn. App. 419, 424, 665 A.2d 137, cert. denied, 235 Conn. 931, 667 A.2d 1269 (1995).

We further note that with regard to expert testimony, our case law states that "[a]n expert witness is not ordinarily permitted to express an opinion on an ultimate issue of fact which is to be decided by the trier of fact.... Experts can sometimes give an opinion on an ultimate issue where the trier, in order to make intelligent findings, needs expert assistance on the precise question on which it must pass." (Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) State v. Lamme, 19 Conn. App. 594, 603, 563 A.2d 1372 (1989), aff'd, 216 Conn. 172, 579 A.2d 484 (1990).

In State v. Lamme, supra, 19 Conn. App. 594, we applied that principle to expert testimony concerning a defendant's sobriety when his intoxication was the ultimate issue. The defendant in Lamme contended that the trial court improperly admitted a police officer's opinion testimony about intoxication because that was the ultimate issue in the case.1 Id., 601-602.

The officer in Lamme testified that the defendant was driving without his headlights on when he was stopped. Id., 601. The officer also testified that when he approached the defendant's car, he had to bang on the window before the defendant opened it and that there was a strong odor of alcohol in the car. Id. The testimony also related the officer's administration of field sobriety tests and his interpretation of those tests. Id., 601, 603. Finally, the officer testified that on the basis of his observations and the sobriety tests, he believed that the defendant was intoxicated. Id., 601-602.

Affirming the decision of the trial court, we stated that "[the officer's] testimony, which included a description and interpretation of and conclusions regarding the roadside sobriety tests, was necessary for the jury intelligently to make a finding as to whether the defendant violated General Statutes § 14-227a (a) by `[operating] a motor vehicle while under the influence of intoxicating liquor or any drug or both.' The opinion portion of [the officer's] testimony differed from any other opinion testimony regarding the sobriety of an individual because it was based in great part on knowledge and skill beyond the ken of the average juror." State v. Lamme, supra, 19 Conn. App. 603-604. We concluded that the officer's testimony in Lamme met the previously stated requirement of the trier of fact's needing expert assistance so as to permit the testimony's admission as expert testimony on the ultimate issue of fact. Id., 604.

We discern no significant distinction between the situation in Lamme and that in the present case, despite the defendant's argument to the contrary, and are therefore constrained to apply the reasoning of that case. Huntsman testified about events similar to those that occurred in Lamme under virtually the same circumstances. Huntsman testified about the initial incident that prompted the pursuit and the pursuit itself. He described his initial interaction with the defendant after he approached the car, as well as the odor of alcohol in the car. He recalled that the defendant could not find his driver's license when asked for it. He related that he smelled alcohol on the defendant's breath and that his eyes were red. He testified that the defendant slurred his speech and had difficulty walking to the rear of the car to take the sobriety tests. Huntsman also described his administration of the tests and his interpretation of them. As in Lamme, Huntsman determined, on the basis of his knowledge, observations and the tests, that the defendant was intoxicated.

We conclude, as we did in Lamme, that Huntsman's expert testimony concerning the defendant's intoxication meets the test for the admissibility of expert testimony on the ultimate issue. The testimony consisted of expert assistance on the ultimate issue that was necessary for the trier of fact to make an intelligent finding. The court did not abuse its discretion in admitting the testimony.

B

The defendant also argues that it was improper for the court to allow Huntsman's testimony that the defendant was intoxicated because it provided the jury with an expert opinion on an issue that was within its comprehension and that it could have decided using its common knowledge. The defendant argues that the court improperly permitted the jury to give more weight to Huntsman's opinion than to its knowledge on the issue of the defendant's sobriety.

As previously noted, our standard of review for a challenge to the admissibility of expert testimony is to determine whether the trial court abused its discretion. See State v. McNally, supra, 39 Conn. App. 424. We further note the long-standing test for the admissibility of expert testimony. "Generally, expert testimony is admissible if (1) the witness has a special skill or knowledge directly applicable to a matter in issue, (2) that skill or knowledge is not common to the average person, and (3) the testimony would be helpful to the court or jury in considering the issues." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) State v. Lamme, supra, 19 Conn. App. 603. Before we can properly address the defendant's claim, we must review our existing decisions that address expert testimony on intoxication. In that review, we consider the circumstances under which the three-pronged test for admitting expert testimony is met in the context of police officers testifying about a defendant's intoxication.

In State v. Lamme, supra, 19 Conn. App. 594, we determined the nature of the officer's testimony in the context of the principal question about expert testimony on the ultimate issue. We noted that despite the trial court's categorization of the officer's testimony as lay opinion, his testimony constituted expert testimony. Id., 602-603. Our analysis of the testimony in Lamme is instructive here.

In assessing the officer's testimony in Lamme, we first noted his training. The officer had received instruction that provided him with specialized skill and knowledge to assess and determine whether a person is intoxicated. Id., 603-605. We therefore...

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