Elevating a California DUI to a Felony

Thursday, March 8th, 2018

The vast majority of California DUI’s are misdemeanors, which means by law a person cannot serve more than a year in jail. And most people who are convicted of a California misdemeanor DUI will never serve that much time, if any at all. However, if a person is arrested, charged, and convicted of a felony DUI, they most certainly will be facing jail, possibly even prison time.

So how does a California DUI get elevated to a felony?

The first way that a California DUI can get elevated to a felony is if the person has suffered three prior DUI-related convictions within the past 10 years. Prior DUI-related convictions include driving under the influence (California Vehicle Code section 23152), driving under the influence with injury (California Vehicle Code section 23153), reckless driving involving alcohol (“wet-reckless”) (California Vehicle Code section 23103.5), and out-of-state convictions that qualify as a priorable conviction. An out-of-state DUI conviction will qualify as a prior DUI in California if it would be considered a DUI had the arrest occurred in California.

A prosecutor can introduce court records from prior cases as well as DMV records to prove the prior DUI convictions. It should also be noted that the prosecutor may also use “expunged” prior DUI-related convictions as way to elevate the current DUI as long as it occurred within the 10-year period.

The second and most common way that a DUI gets elevated from a misdemeanor to a felony is when a DUI results in the injury of another person. California Vehicle Code section 23153 makes it illegal for any person, while under the influence of any alcoholic beverage or drug, or under the combined influence of any alcoholic beverage and drug, or with a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent or higher to drive a vehicle and concurrently do any act forbidden by law, or neglect any duty imposed by law in driving the vehicle, which act or neglect proximately causes bodily injury to any person other than the driver. Simply put, this means that the driver was under the influence of alcohol or drugs, they broke a law or acted in a negligent manner and caused injury to another person.

Although DUI with injury is a “wobbler,” meaning it can be charged as either a felony or a misdemeanor, it will almost always be charged as a felony. In fact, I’ve seen prosecutors file DUI’s as felonies when the victim suffered a chipped tooth, a broken finger, and even soft tissue damage. A skilled DUI attorney may be able to negotiate the DUI down to a misdemeanor. However, whether the prosecutor is willing to file or reduce the charge to a misdemeanor will depend on several considerations including, but not limited to, the seriousness of the injury, the level of intoxication, and prior criminal history.

If a person drives under the influence and, as a result, causes the death of another person, they may be charged with either manslaughter, which can be a wobbler depending on the specific Vehicle Code section being alleged, or murder, which is a felony.

A DUI resulting in death will be charged as manslaughter if the driver has not suffered any prior DUI-related convictions. If, however, the driver has suffered a prior DUI-related conviction, they will likely be charged with second degree murder under California’s “Watson Murder Rule.” Under Watson, the California Supreme allowed murder to be charged in a subsequent DUI resulting in death because the driver was made aware of the dangers of drunk driving after having been sentenced on the prior DUI. It is almost as if the court is saying, “We warned you, you did it anyways, and now look at what happened.”

Last, but not least, a California DUI can become a felony if a person suffered any prior felony DUI within ten years. The priorable felony offense can be a conviction of any of those listed above; California Vehicle Code section 23152 (fourth or more DUI), California Vehicle Code section 23153 (DUI causing injury), California Penal Code section 192 (vehicular manslaughter), or California Penal Code section 191.5 (vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated or gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated).

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Virginia May Soon Allow Drunk Driving on Private Property

Thursday, February 22nd, 2018

A Virginia bill, if passed, would allow drunk driving on private property within that state.

The bill, introduced by Virginia Republican Senator Richard Stuart, would change Virginia’s current DUI law to decriminalize drunk driving on private property. Current Virginia law does not differentiate between private and public property when a person is driving under the influence. If passed, the legislation would include in Virginia’s DUI law the language, “This section shall not apply to any person driving or operating a motor vehicle on his own residential property or the curtilage thereof.”

The bill has already passed the State Senate by a vote of 37-3. The bill will now go to the House of Delegates for consideration.

To supporters of the bill, it’s more about being able to do what you want on your own property more than it is about being able to drive drunk.

“I really don’t think it has to do with whether or not people want to be able to drink and drive. They just don’t want to be interfered with on their private property,” said Dana Schrad with the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Polices. “From a law enforcement perspective, we’re very much concerned that we’re sending the wrong message to young people that there would be an acceptable time to drink and drive, that it’s okay, and how do you let them know that that doesn’t translate to public roadways?”

Unsurprisingly, not everyone is on board.

“Is a driver with a .14 BAC (blood alcohol content) operating a motor vehicle across Kings Dominion’s parking lot any less of a threat than if he or she were similarly doing so on a neighboring roadway?” asked Kurt Erickson, president and CEO of the nonprofit Washington Regional Alcohol Program. “Inasmuch, the bill throws Virginia down the slippery slope of bifurcating the state’s DUI laws, effectively communicating that it’s okay to drive drunk here, but not there – a dangerous precedent.”

In California, as it is with most states, drunk driving remains illegal on both private and public property.

The California Vehicle Code states that laws including a California DUI “apply to vehicles upon the highways and elsewhere throughout the State unless expressly provided otherwise.”

In 1992 Ronald Dean Arnold Malvitz was arrested for a California DUI while in a privately locked storage facility and sought to challenge California’s law arguing that it didn’t apply to him since he was on private property.

The California Court of Appeals ruled against Malvitz by looking at the legislative history of California’s DUI law.

Prior to 1982, the California Vehicle Code made it illegal to drive drunk “upon a highway or upon other than a highway areas in which are open to the general public.” However, in 1982, the legislature deleted the language referring to the locations upon which a person could be arrested and ultimately convicted of drunk driving.

The Court concluded that the “statute that prohibited driving under the influence of alcohol and/or any drug has emerged unencumbered with any language restricting its reach.”

In other words, the Court concluded that it was the intent of the legislature that, in deleting the portion of the statute which referred to location, the law which prohibits drunk driving should extend to anywhere in California where drunk drivers pose a threat included public highways as well private property.

In addition to the Malvitz ruling, California Vehicle Code section 23215 states, “[law enforcement] may, but shall not be required to, provide patrol or enforce the provisions of [California’s DUI law] for offenses which occur other than upon a highway.”

While drunk driving on private property may soon be allowed in Virginia, I don’t think California will follow suit any time soon.

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Sobering Up by Sleeping in Your Car

Thursday, February 1st, 2018

It’s not an unlikely scenario when a person leaves a bar too drunk to drive and they decide to sleep in their car until they sober up. Kudos to the person for having the wherewithal to avoid driving when drunk. But if a law enforcement officers happens upon the sleeping bar patron, the question becomes whether they can be arrested, charged, and convicted of a California DUI.

Some states hold that a person can be arrested, charged, and convicted of a DUI if they are in “dominion and control” of their vehicle with the ability to drive the it, even though they may not have actually driven it.

Fortunately, California is not a “dominion and control” state, meaning that prosecutors here in California must prove that the person actually drove their vehicle.

The California Supreme Court in the case of Mercer v. Department of Motor Vehicles in 1991 held that the word “drive” in California’s DUI law means that the defendant volitionally and voluntarily moved the vehicle. The court has held that even a “slight movement” is enough to meet the requirement that the defendant drove the vehicle as long as it was voluntary.

Does this mean that a person who is sleeping in a car while under the influence can completely avoid criminal charges? No.

If a person is found sleeping in their car, it is likely that any arresting officer did not see the person drive. Therefore, there may not be any direct evidence for a prosecutor to prove that a person drove. A prosecutor, however, can use circumstantial evidence to prove that the person drove to where they were found while under the influence and then fell asleep.

For example, if an intoxicated person is sleeping in their vehicle in the middle of the road or at the scene of a collision (yes, it happens more often than you would think), then the prosecutor can raise those facts to create the inference that the person had driven. In other words, the prosecutor would argue that it is reasonable to infer that the defendant drove.

On the other hand, if those facts do not exist that would create the inference that the defendant drove then the prosecutor is going to have difficult time proving that the person actually drove the vehicle while being under the influence. This scenario presents itself from time to time as well. But the person may still be charged with another crime such as drunk in public.

In the 1966 case of People v. Belanger, officers found the intoxicated defendant asleep in his vehicle which was located in a parking lot. Although the facts in that case were not enough to create the inference that the defendant had driven to the location while under the influence because he could have driven there sober, drank, and then fell asleep, the officers did arrest the defendant for drunk in public.

The Court concluded that, in order to prevent the defendant from waking up and driving drunk, they needed to arrest him on suspicion of being drunk in public.

Bottom line is that no person should be in a vehicle when they’re intoxicated whether they’ve driven it or not. A prosecutor may still be able to prove a case for driving under the influence or, in the event that they cannot create the inference that person drove, the person is still facing drunk in public charges.

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Toddler Killed in Suspected DUI-Related Collision

Thursday, January 25th, 2018

“This accident was so violent, that even though it was a rear end accident, it injured everyone in the vehicle and also killed a one-year-old,” John Tyler of the California Highway Patrol said.

Tyler was referring to a collision that occurred this past weekend in Lemoore, California where 50-year-old Rodney Klamerus crashed into the back of a family’s Nissan. Three adults were in the Nissan along with one-year-old Liliana Valencia who was in her car seat.

All three adult passengers in the Nissan and Klamerus were transported to nearby hospitals. Valencia was transported to a hospital, but was later pronounced dead.

“We’re not sure exactly why, possibly due to his impairment, but he failed to slow down as this vehicle was ahead of him. And this vehicle turned northbound onto [Highway] 41, established itself in the lane, and was rear-ended shortly thereafter,” Tyler told KFSN.

Although investigators were unable to speak with Klamerus due to the severity of his injuries, he is facing several felony DUI charges which will likely include DUI-related homicide charges.

Homicide merely refers to the killing of another human being and encompasses murder charges, voluntary manslaughter charges, and involuntary manslaughter charges. It is still unclear exactly what homicide charge Klamerus faces.

Prior to 1981, a person who killed someone while driving under the influence could not be charged and convicted of murder. However, the landmark case of People v. Watson changed that.

California Penal Code section 187(a) provides that “Murder is the unlawful killing of a human being…with malice aforethought.” “Malice” refers to the deliberate intention to unlawfully kill someone else. However, malice can be also be “implied” and implied malice exists when a person knowingly engages in an act that is dangerous to human life and they engage the act with a conscious disregard for human life. It is almost as if the court is saying that the drunk driver might as well have intended to kill someone because they knew it was dangerous to drive drunk, yet they did it anyways.

The court in Watson found that if the facts surrounding the DUI support a finding of “implied malice,” second degree murder can be charged when the DUI led to the death of someone else. In other words, if a person engages in driving under the influence when they know that it is dangerous to human life to do so, and they kill someone, they can be charged with murder.  

Now the question becomes, “Did the person know it was dangerous to human life to drive drunk?”

While we all know that it’s dangerous to drive drunk, since Watson, courts started expressly advising people who have been convicted of DUI, on the record, that it is, in fact, dangerous to drive drunk. This was not because the court actually thought that the defendant didn’t know it, but rather to ensure that the prosecutor could charge murder instead of manslaughter upon a subsequent DUI causing the death of someone.

Whether Klamerus will be charged with murder or some lesser homicide charge will depend on whether prosecutors can prove that he expressly knew that, by driving drunk, he could kill someone, but decided to drive drunk anyways.

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Lowering Legal Limit to 0.05 Percent BAC

Thursday, January 18th, 2018

It’s been a debate for some time now. Should the legal limit for how much alcohol someone can have in their system while driving be lowered from 0.08 percent to 0.05 percent?  

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine believes so. But before we get into what their newly released report says, let’s put the numbers into context.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a male weighing 140 pounds would be at, or close to, a 0.08 percent blood alcohol content having had three drinks within an hour. A female weighing 120 pounds would be at, or close to, 0.08 percent blood alcohol content having had just two drinks within an hour. Regardless of gender, your blood alcohol content will not be as high if you weigh more. Conversely, your blood alcohol content will be higher if you weigh less.

On the other hand, male weighing 140 pounds would be at, or close to, 0.05 percent blood alcohol content having had two drinks within an hour. A female weighing 120 pounds would be at, or close to, 0.04 percent blood alcohol content having had just one drink within an hour.

Of course, these figures are approximate and depend on several factors which include, but are not limited to, whether the person ate, what they ate, what they drank, and how fast they drank it. But based on these approximate numbers, we can see that for both males and females, the difference between a 0.08 and a 0.05 percent blood alcohol content is about one less drink in an hour.

Should the legal limit be lowered to 0.05 percent, that means for some, only one drink or less and they would be breaking the law if they get behind a vehicle. According to the U.S. government-commissioned panel of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, that’ll prevent DUI-related collisions and fatalities.

“The plateauing fatality rates indicate that what has been done to decrease deaths from alcohol-impaired driving has been working but is no longer sufficient to reverse this growing public health problem,” said report committee chair Steven Teutsch in a news release from the National Academies. “Our report offers a comprehensive blueprint to reinvigorate commitment and calls for systematic implementation of policies, programs, and system changes to renew progress and save lives.”

Teutsch is an adjunct professor at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Public Health.

The 489-page report also recommends that states significantly increase alcohol taxes, stricter regulation on alcohol advertising, broadening ignition interlock device laws, and stricter laws to prevent the sale of alcohol to people under the age of 21, amongst other things.

Not everyone is on board with the panel’s suggestions.

“[We], along with other organizations focused on traffic safety such as MADD, strongly supports the strict enforcement of the 0.08 BAC level,” said the Distilled Spirits Council in a statement. “Reducing the BAC limit to 0.05 will do nothing to deter the behavior of repeat high BAC drivers who represent the vast majority of drunk driving fatalities on the nation’s roads.”

Just as a reminder, a person can be arrested, charged, and convicted of a DUI if they are “under the influence,” regardless of what their blood alcohol content is. This means that a person can have a 0.04 percent blood alcohol content as long as they cannot drive a vehicle as a reasonable sober person would under similar circumstances.

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