Can a Person Be Charged and Convicted of Attempted DUI?

Monday, August 11th, 2014

Let’s envision a scenario: a man is drinking rather heavily at a bar. Barely able to stand, the man closes out his tab and stumbles to his car intending to drive home. However, after getting into his car, the man unsuccessfully attempts to fit the key into the ignition because he’s just that drunk. The man then passes out before he is able to start his vehicle. Unbeknownst to the man, an officer has witnessed the man’s unsuccessful attempts at driving home.

Since California DUI law requires that a person actually drive a vehicle, the question becomes, “can a person be arrested for attempted DUI?” Does such an offense even exist?

States are divided as to the answer. However the issue in California was addressed by the California Appellate Court in the 1989 case of People v. Garcia, 262 Cal. Rptr. 915.

In People v. Garcia, the defendant was found in the driver’s seat of her vehicle. Her vehicle, at the time, was in the fast lane of the highway with the hazard lights on. Her vehicle began to roll backward and the defendant unsuccessfully attempted to start the car. She was, however, able to stop the vehicle from rolling backward by putting it in park. Unfortunately, for the defendant, officers were observing and arrested her.

The court held that the California Penal Code sections dealing with the crime of “attempt” are applicable to DUI cases.

California Penal Code section 21(a) states that an “[a]ttempt requires a specific intent to commit the crime, and a direct but ineffectual act done toward its commission.”

Driving under the influence is, what is called, a “general intent” crime because it only requires that a person intend to commit the act of driving. A “specific intent” crime, on the other hand, requires that a person intent to commit a crime. Murder, for example, is a specific intent crime because it requires that the person have the specific intent to kill someone. If someone is killed unintentionally, say during a traffic collision, the crime becomes involuntary manslaughter which is a general intent crime.

In applying California’s attempt laws to DUI, the court in Garcia essentially made attempted DUI a specific intent crime. In doing so, the court created an interesting paradox.

If attempted DUI requires the specific intent to commit the crime of driving drunk, the mere fact that a defendant was drunk may serve to negate the possibility that they specifically intended to commit the crime of DUI.

Perhaps this paradox is exactly what the Garcia court was referring to when it said that it was “not unmindful that there might be some troublesome questions which will have to be resolved in later case.”

Troublesome questions indeed…

 

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Law Enforcement and the Confirmation Bias

Monday, August 4th, 2014

While I have a bachelor’s degree in psychology, I’m by no means a psychologist. Nor can I say that there’s much that I remember from my college studies except those things that are proving to be particularly relevant in my law career. One of those things is the “confirmation bias.”

The confirmation bias occurs when a person has beliefs or expectations and unconsciously seeks out and interprets information to confirm those beliefs and expectation while ignoring contradictory information. Put in simple terms, people see what they want to see.  

The confirmation bias is proving to be particularly relevant in criminal law because unfortunately, it affects law enforcement decisions, particularly in DUI cases, more often than I’d like to admit.

Although proven to be unreliable, the purpose of field sobriety tests are to allow officers to obtain information sufficient to establish probable cause that a person has been driving drunk. However, often is the case that the officers have already decided that a person is guilty of drunk driving even before the field sobriety tests are conducted.

Regardless of how the DUI suspect performs on the field sobriety tests, the officers will interpret the performance to justify their own expectations about the DUI suspect. This is exactly why I always advise my clients and anyone else who may happen to find themselves in the unfortunate predicament of being stopped on suspicion of DUI: never agree to perform field sobriety tests.

While I’ve seen this psychological phenomenon play out in more than a number of California DUI cases that I’ve handled, until recently I was unaware that the confirmation bias effect on law enforcement in DUI cases has actually been empirically tested.

In 1977, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) commissioned a study by the Southern California Research institution to test the best field sobriety tests. Ten police officers observed several hundred subjects who were given varying amounts of alcohol. Neither the officers nor the participants knew how much alcohol was ingested by each participant. Based on the subject’s performance on the field sobriety test, the officers incorrectly identified subjects as having a blood alcohol content above 0.10 percent a whopping 47 percent of the time.

In 1994, Dr. Spurgeon Cole, a researcher at Clemson University, conducted a study which tends to confirm the 1977 study. Dr. Cole videotaped 21 sober individuals performing six field sobriety tests. Fourteen police officers, with a median experience level of 11.7 years, viewed the videotapes. I would be remiss not to mention that all of the officers had completed state-mandated DUI detection training courses. Even though the subjects were completely sober, the officers determined that the subjects were too drunk to drive an astonishing 46 percent of the time.

Leo Tolstoy once said, “The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any ideas of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of a doubt, what is laid before him.”

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Can Out-of-State Priors Increase a California DUI Sentence?

Monday, July 28th, 2014

If a person suffers a California DUI conviction, any subsequent California DUI conviction within a ten year period carries with it an increased punishment.

Generally a first-time California DUI conviction carries three to five years of summary (informal) probation, up to six months in jail, between $390 and $1,000 in fines, completion of a court-approved three month DUI program, and a six-month license suspension.

A second-time California DUI conviction carries three to five years of summary probation, a minimum of 96 hours to a maximum of one year in county jail, between $390 and $1,000 in fines, completion of a court-approved 18 month DUI program, and a two-year license suspension.

A third-time California DUI conviction carries three to five years of summary probation, a minimum of 120 days to a maximum of one year in county jail, between $390 and $1,000 in fines, completion of a court approved 30-month DUI program, and a three-year license revocation.

What if someone suffers, say, a Florida DUI conviction in 2007 and then gets arrested this year in California for DUI? Can the Florida conviction be used to increase the punishment in the California DUI conviction?

As the answer is with many legal questions: It depends.

It depends on whether the conduct that led to the Florida conviction (or any out-of-state conviction) meets the elements of a California DUI charge.

In Florida, the DUI statute reads:

“A person is guilty of the offense of driving under the influence… if the person is driving or in actual physical control of a vehicle within this state and…[t]he person is under the influence of alcoholic beverages…when affected to the extent that the person’s normal faculties are impaired…”

Florida’s statute requires that a person impaired “to the extent that the person’s normal faculties are impaired.” This standard is less strict than California. California requires that a person be impaired to an appreciable degree. Thus, a person may be deemed impaired under Florida’s standard, but not necessarily under California’s.

Florida’s statute also requires that someone drives or is “in actual physical control of a vehicle.” This makes Florida what is called a “dominion and control state.” A person can have dominion and control over a vehicle by simply being in the driver’s seat. California’s DUI law, on the other hand, requires that a person actually drive the vehicle. Therefore, a person can be convicted under Florida’s DUI law by sitting in the driver’s seat while intoxicated. However, someone sitting in the driver’s seat while intoxicated cannot be convicted under California’s DUI law.

Let’s put this into context as it relates to whether an out-of-state prior can be used to increase the punishment in a California DUI case.

In 2007, John Doe is arrested and convicted in Florida under Florida’s DUI law because he was drunk and unconscious in the driver’s seat of a parked vehicle. Seven years later (and within the 10 year “washout period”) in 2014, John Doe is arrested in California under California’s DUI law when he is spotted swerving on the highway by law enforcement.

Prosecutors will be unable to use John Doe’s Florida conviction to increase the penalties in his California case because the facts which gave rise to the Florida conviction would not meet the elements of California’s DUI law because California requires that a person actual drive the car.

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Murder Conviction for a DUI Fatality

Monday, July 14th, 2014

A Southern California man was sentenced to 34 years to life in a California State prison last week for a 2012 DUI that led to the death of two Caltrans workers. Amongst other charges, Yocio Jonathan Gomez was convicted of second degree murder.

Gomez, 25, was driving a Ford Explorer 90 miles an hour through a construction zone in Torrance in the early morning hours of July 22, 2012. According to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, Gomez lost control of his vehicle which struck another SUV. The SUV spun out of control striking Caltrans workers, Ricardo Zamora, 58, and Ramon Lopez, 56, killing both. A third worker was also injured.

It was later determined that Gomez’s blood alcohol content was 0.21 percent. Gomez was charged with and subsequently convicted of second degree murder.

A conviction of second degree murder for a DUI related fatality such Gomez’s always raises questions, especially amongst students of mine. How can someone, who doesn’t intend to kill anyone, be charged with murder?

Gomez’s conviction of second degree murder turned on one very significant fact: it wasn’t his first DUI.

Prior to 1981, a person who killed another in the course of driving under the influence could not be charged and convicted of murder. However, the landmark case of People v. Watson (1981) 30 Cal.3d 290, changed all of that.

California Penal Code section 187(a) provides that “Murder is the unlawful killing of a human being, or a fetus, with malice aforethought.” Section 188 provides that malice can either be expressed or implied and implied malice is present “when no considerable provocation appears, or when the circumstances attending the killing show an abandoned and malignant heart.”

What does that mean?

According to People v. Phillips, (1966) 64 Cal.2d 574, 587, second degree murder based on implied malice has been committed when a person does “an act, the natural consequences of which are dangerous to life, which act was deliberately performed by a person who knows that his conduct endangers the life of another and who acts with conscious disregard for life.”

With this foundation, the Watson court found that if the facts surrounding the DUI support a finding of “implied malice,” second degree murder can be charged. If the facts surrounding the DUI only support a finding of “gross negligence,” only vehicular manslaughter may be charged.  

The difference between implied malice and gross negligence is wafer thin. Gross negligence occurs when a person acts in a reckless way that creates a high risk of death or great bodily injury and a reasonable person would have known that acting in that way would create such a risk.

How does the prosecutor prove that a person acted with implied malice rather than gross negligence?

Since Watson, courts began expressly advising convicted DUI defendants that it is extremely dangerous to human life to drive while under the influence of alcohol or drugs or both and if the defendant continues to do so and, as a result of their driving, someone is killed, they can be charged with murder.

In other words, it’s the court’s way of telling someone, “You’ve done it once, now consider yourself warned. If you do it again, it’s no longer reckless, it’s a conscious disregard for human life.”

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Proposed “Gun Violence Restraining Order” Could Affect DUI Offenders

Monday, June 2nd, 2014

In the wake of the tragic shootings last weekend at UC Santa Barbara, two Democrats in California’s State Assembly have announced their plans to introduce a new gun control measure which could prohibit those who have been convicted of a DUI from owning and carrying a gun.

The “gun violence restraining order,” proposed by Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) and Das Williams (D-Santa Barbara), would create a system where a legal gun owner can have their guns confiscated if a family member believes they have a mental health problem that the state is not aware of. The “restraining order” could be issued upon gun owners who have passed NICS background checks, registered their firearms with the state, and have not broken any laws.

The idea for the “gun violence restraining order” is part of a recommendation from the Consortium for Risk-Based Firearm Policy which also suggests firearm prohibitions for other “risk factors” including “drug or alcohol use (linked to DUI convictions or misdemeanors involving a controlled substance).”

I won’t comment on the “restraining order” as it applies to those who have been identified by family members as having mental health problems, although I do have my opinions.

However, when it comes to prohibiting those who have suffered from a DUI conviction from owning a gun, I have an issue that I will express.

This isn’t the first time that legislators have attempted to place gun ownership restrictions on DUI offenders.

Last year, Democratic Sen. Lois Wolk of Davis introduced SB 755, a bill which would have prevented some DUI offenders from having guns for a period of 10 years. Fortunately, California Governor Jerry Brown vetoed the bill saying, “I am not persuaded that it is necessary to prohibit gun ownership on the basis of crimes that are non-felonies, non-violent and do not involve misuse of a firearm.”

Also last year, Connecticut Governor Dannel P. Malloy proposed a law that would ban DUI offenders from owning a firearm. Supported by Connecticut democratic senator Martin Looney, the proposed law was intended to prohibit possession of firearms by people who have demonstrated “irresponsible behavior” and a “willingness to break the law.”

I’ve never been the biggest advocate for gun rights, but the suggestion that a DUI offense is a “risk factor” which should prevent someone from owning a gun is absurd.

The Consortium’s recommendation for a prohibition on gun ownership targets groups at heightened risk of violence. According to the Consortium, that includes individuals convicted of two or more DUIs in a five-year period. What is it about a DUI that’s violent? Taking into account DUIs which involve injuries or death, the “violence” involved unintended violence which has nothing to do with the propensity to misuse a gun.

Currently, certain convictions can prevent individuals from possessing a firearm. However, those convictions at least have a causal link to potential future gun violence. Driving under the influence, however, does not.

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