For many years now I’ve written and lectured extensively on drunk driving litigation –on the science of blood and breath alcohol analysis, the flaws in breathalyzers, the ineffectiveness of field sobriety testing. In recent years, however, my focus has increasingly shifted to the gradual erosion of constitutional rights in DUI cases.
So who cares about people accused of drunk driving and their constitutional rights?
You should care. The importance of what is happening in DUI law and procedures can be summarized in one word: precedent.
We are a nation of laws, more specifically, the common law inherited from the British legal system. Unlike most nations, which use some version of the French civil law where laws are found in codes, we look to the precedent of judicial decisions interpreting statutory law. When a court looks at the facts in a specific case, it applies not only statutes but decisions in appellate court cases to determine what the law is.The genius of this common law system of precedent is its flexibility; its flaw is what many call "judicial legislation".
The flaw becomes particularly noticeable when dealing with politically unpopular subjects. And few topics are as politically "incorrect" as drunk driving. Judges are, after all, politically sensitive animals who want to be reelected. Put another way, it is very easy to rule in favor of the prosecution in DUI cases — particularly when powerful pressure groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (annual revenues of over $51 million) are so influential in elections and in legislatures. There are few advocates for the accused or the Constitution during election campaigns.
This judicial attitude is not limited to judges with an eye on re-election. A majority of the U.S. Supreme Court has been consistent in depriving the accused in DUI cases their constitutional rights. To mention but a few examples:
Michigan v. Sitz. The Court held that sobriety roadblocks were permissible — that the admitted violation of the Fourth Amendment was "outweighed" by the government’s interest in combating drunk driving.
South Dakota v. Neville. The Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination was held inapplicable in drunk driving cases (refusing to submit to testing).
Blanton v. North Las Vegas. Even though punishable by six months in jail, fines and diver’s license suspension, there is no Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial in a drunk driving case.
California v. Trombetta. Although police normally have to save evidence, they do not have to save breath samples in DUI cases (even though it is easy and inexpensive to do so).
So…we have seen a steady flow of appellate decisions at all levels taking away the constitutional rights of those accused of DUI. Again, so what?
Again, precedent: What happens today to a citizen accused of DUI can happen tommorrow to a person accused of any other offense. If police can set up roadblocks to check everyone for intoxication, they can set them up to search for drugs (which, incidentally, has already happened). If a citizen accused of DUI has no right to a jury of his peers, then the precedent exists to deny the right to citizens accused of any other crime.
The danger of precedent in the DUI field is not limited to judicial decisions. Legislatures are also guilty of passing unfair and unconstitutional — but politically popular — laws. We have certainly seen a seemingly unending series of unfair and unconstitutional statutes across the country in recent years: immediate license suspensions at the police station; double jeopardy/punishment (license suspension and criminal prosecution); so-called per se laws (.08% blood-alcohol is illegal, even if sober); presumption of guilt (if .08%, presumed to be under the influence; if .08% when tested, presumed to be .08% when driving); ad nauseum. And having passed such laws relating to DUI, they are less reluctant to do so in other areas as well.
So who cares about DUI? To paraphrase, "First they came for the drunks, but I was not a drunk so I did not speak up….."