Archive for February 26th, 2010

Double Punishment in DUI Cases

Friday, February 26th, 2010

When a person is arrested for DUI, his driver’s license is confiscated by the arresting officer and he is given a notice of "administrative suspension". He is also given a citation to appear in court to face criminal drunk driving charges. These are usually two very different procedures: (1) the administrative suspension for driving with blood-alcohol of .08%, in most states administered by its department of motor vehicles, and (2) the criminal prosecution for the two separate offenses of driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI or DWI) and driving with .08%,  which takes place in the courts.

Let’s take a closer look at that second proceeding, the criminal charges in the courts….The accused allegedly engaged in a single act of driving.  Yet, he is being prosecuted in court for two different crimes: DUI and driving with a .08% BAC. He can even be convicted of both offenses (although he can only be punished for one). How is this possible?

But what about that first proceeding? The driver has already been punished by another state agency (the DMV) for driving over .08% by having his license suspended (or for refusing to take a chemical test). If he is later convicted in the state’s criminal court of driving over .08% (and/or driving under the influence), he will be punished a second time. The sentence may involve jail, fines, DUI schools, ignition interlock devices, community work, probation — and a second restriction or suspension of his license.

How many times can the state prosecute and punish a person for a single crime?

Our Constitution says only once. The Fifth Amendment specifically provides that no person shall " be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life and limb". So is this another example of "The DUI exception to the Constitution"?

Let’s first take the question of charging defendants with both DUI and .08%. The courts in the different states wrestled with this one for awhile, coming to different conclusions, but eventually reached a consensus that the driver actually commited two different crimes. As an Indiana court reasoned, "The test to be applied to determine whether there are two different offenses or only one, is whether each provision requires proof of a fact which the other does not". Sering v. State, 488 N.E.2d 369 (1986). The .08 statute required proof of blood-alcohol concentration; although blood-alcohol evidence was used to prove the DUI crime as well (a person is usually presumed to be under the influence if his BAC is .08% or higher), the offense could be proved without it. So it’s ok to prosecute and convict him for both crimes – so long as you don’t punish him for both. 

Hmm….isn’t that just word games?  Defining a single act in different ways?  Couldn’t you define it ten different ways and get ten different crimes to charge the citizen with? 

And what about that first license suspension?  What about punishing the driver by suspending his license when he’s arrested — and then punishing him again in court? In fact, punishing him in court with a sentence that probably includes another license suspension?

This one caused the appellate courts a bit more trouble. This wasn’t a case where the person was committing two different crimes: he was being punished by two different state agencies for the same crime: driving with .08% BAC. But there had to be some way to get around that pesky Constitution.

The courts could not agree. Some said that there was no double jeopardy or double punishment since the DMV license foreiture was not really a punishment, but only a civil sanction. Others took the position that this was, in fact, a violation of the Fifth Amendment, and they relied upon a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court decision (U.S. v. Halper, 490 U.S. 435) which involved civil forfeitures and criminal punishments for selling marijuana. In that case the Court held that a "civil sanction’ was actually a punishment  ‘and thus double jeopardy’ if (1) the clear focus of (the statute) is on the culpability of the individual, and (2) the legislature "understood these provisions as serving to deter and punish". The Court added that "the historical understanding of forfeiture as punishment" weighs heavily in favor of the conclusion that forfeiture continues to serve punitive purposes.

Well, relying upon the Supreme Court’s ruling, an alarming number of courts around the country were throwing out criminal DUI charges on double jeopardy grounds. This, of course, infuriated MADD, legislators, prosecutors, law enforcement and pretty much everyone else who did not take the Constitution too seriously.

But help arrived  from a more conservative U.S. Supreme Court. In 1997, Chief Justice Rehnquist revisited the forfeiture-punishment problem and did something that is rarely ever done: he criticized and flatly rejected the earlier Supreme Court’s ruling: "We believe that Halper’s deviation from long-standing double jeopardy principles was ill-considered.  Halper’s test for determining whether a particular sanction is "punitive", and thus subject to the strictures of the Double Jeopardy Clause, has proved unworkable." Hudson v. U.S., 592 U.S. 93 (1997).


Since then, the courts have had little trouble finding that a police officer who confiscates and suspends the driver’s license of a drunk driving suspect is merely administering a civil sanction, not punishment, and that when he is later convicted in court and is fined, jailed and has his license suspended again, well, that’s not really double jeopardy or multiple punishment. It just looks an awful lot like it.

Somehow, the words of Lewis Carroll keep coming to mind:

"When I use a word", Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less."

"The question is", said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is", said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master, that’s all."