California Man Faces DUI after Police Find Him Unconscious in Running Car

Friday, June 1st, 2018

A Sonoma man was found unconscious in his parked, running car by Petaluma police. Officers arrested the man, who had recently been convicted of a DUI, on suspicion of another DUI.

Joel Barrera, 34, was found asleep in his vehicle on May 22nd by Petaluma police officers. Although the car was parked in the parking lot of a local park, the engine was running. After waking Barrera, officers determined that he was under the influence of alcohol with a blood alcohol content of almost twice the legal limit of 0.08 percent.

What’s more, officers found a semi-automatic handgun and a loaded magazine in his car and discovered that Barrera was already on probation for a DUI conviction out of Marin County for which his license was currently suspended.

Barrera was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence, carrying a concealed gun in a vehicle, driving on a suspended license, and violating probation.

We’ll have to wait and see what happens to Barrera. But until then, you might be wondering how it is that someone can even be arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence if they weren’t even driving.

If a person is found sleeping in their car, as was the case with Barrera, 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.

Just because law enforcement does not actually see a person drive under the influence doesn’t mean they can’t be found guilty of driving under the influence. A prosecutor can use circumstantial evidence to prove that a person drove to where they were found while under the influence and then fell asleep in their car.

For example, if an intoxicated person is sleeping in their vehicle in the middle of the road or at the scene of a collision (believe me, it happens more often than you would think), then the prosecutor can raise those facts to create the inference that the person had driven to those locations. In other words, the prosecutor may argue that, based on the surrounding circumstances, it is reasonable to infer that the defendant drove to the location where they were found even though there is no direct evidence that they drove there.

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 then drive away drunk, they needed to arrest him on suspicion of being drunk in public.

Needless to say, no person should be in a vehicle when they’re intoxicated whether they’ve driven or not. A prosecutor may still be able to successfully argue the person drove when, in fact, they didn’t. Furthermore, if a prosecutor cannot prove that the person drove, they may still be able to secure a conviction for some other crime such as drunk in public.

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LAPD Officer Charged with DUI Murder

Tuesday, April 24th, 2018

A Los Angeles Police Department officer was arrested last week on suspicion of three counts of murder as the result of a suspected DUI-related collision in Whittier last fall.

On September 26, 2017, Edgar Verduzco, 27, was allegedly speeding in the carpool lane under the influence of alcohol on the 605 freeway in Whittier, California, when his Chevy Camaro collided into the rear of a Nissan. The Nissan burst into flames and Verduzco’s vehicle went on to hit a second vehicle.

A family of three – Mario Davila, 60, Maribel Davila, 52, and their son, Oscar Davila, 19 – were the occupants of the Nissan and all three died as a result of the collision. The occupant of the second vehicle suffered minor injuries. Verduzco suffered a broken nose.

Before the collision, Verduzco posted a video on Instagram from a bar and included the hastag #Dontdrinkanddrive. The video depicted a male in a police uniform with a badge with the name “Verduzco.” The video also showed an animated person sitting in a car which appeared to be sitting on the bar counter with beers.

Although the LAPD could not verify the authenticity of the post or the account’s owner, KTLA reported that other videos on the account show a Chevy Camaro and a police officer which appears to be Verduzco in an LAPD patrol car.

For anybody else, officers responding to a collision where drunk driving was suspected would have whipped out their breathalyzers quicker than a gunslinger in the old west. Suspiciously, however, the officers who responded to the collision did not give Verduzco a breathalyzer to determine his BAC at the scene even though, according to California Highway Patrol, he showed signs of intoxication. Instead, a blood test was later conducted and Verduzco was subsequently released on bail pending the outcome of the blood test.

Although it is unclear whether the blood result is in, Verduzco was re-arrested at a friend’s house in Long Beach last week and was booked on three counts of second degree murder, three counts of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and drunk driving causing injury.

Last Friday, Verduzco continued his arraignment to May 16th. However, it was not before Judge Deborah S. Brazil set his bail at $6.1 million.

It is unclear why Verduzco is being charged with murder in addition to the “lesser-included” vehicular manslaughter. If you’ve read my numerous posts on a DUI-murder charge (also known as “Watson murder”), you’ll know that to charge murder, prosecutors need to prove that the driver was expressly aware of the dangers of driving drunk, yet they did so anyways. This is usually proven when the driver suffered a prior DUI conviction and is admonished on the dangers of driving drunk. Since there is no indication that Verduzco suffered a prior DUI conviction, my guess would be that his position as a law enforcement officer, whose job it is to arrest people on suspicion of DUI, makes him expressly aware of the dangers of driving drunk.

Verduzco is an Army veteran who joined the LAPD in 2015 after returning from a tour of duty in Afghanistan.

“There’s never an excuse for driving under the influence, and if Officer Verduzco is found guilty of whatever he is accused of, then he should suffer the consequences for his reckless actions,'’ said the Los Angeles Police Protective League in a statement issued shortly after the collision.

“My heart goes out to the victims and families so tragically impacted by Verduzco’s criminal actions,” said police Chief Charlie Beck. “Police officers have a moral and legal obligation to abide by the laws that they enforce. [The] arrest demonstrates how seriously we take that obligation.

Stay tuned for updates.

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Drunk Driver May Finally Lose License After 28th DUI Arrest

Friday, October 6th, 2017

Danny Lee Bettcher of New York Mills, Minnesota, has been arrested for driving under the influence for the 28th time. Yes, that’s correct, 28th time.

This past week, an off-duty police officer spotted Bettcher drinking at a local Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) post. The off-duty officer notified authorities after he saw Bettcher leave the VFW post in his vehicle.

Authorities caught up with Bettcher and pulled him over after he ignored a stop sign and drove onto the highway at 10 mph while swerving. According to officers, Bettcher had bloodshot eyes and a beer can was located behind the passenger’s seat.

“I am way over. Take me to jail,” Bettcher told police after refusing to take a sobriety test, according to the criminal complaint.

According to Assistant County Attorney, Jacob Thomason, Bettcher could be sentenced up to seven years in prison.

Although Bettcher’s license was valid at the time of the arrest, it included “a restriction that any use of alcohol or drugs invalidates the license,” state Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Megan Leonard told the Star Tribune.

As of last week, a revocation of Bettcher’s license was pending.

Bettcher, who attributes his alcoholism to post-traumatic stress disorder following his military service, has already served four years behind bars for other DUI convictions and has been ordered to go to treatment at least 12 times.

So what would it have taken for Bettcher to have his license permanently revoked had he been in California?

The California license suspension can be rather complicated. Suffice it to say, on a first time DUI, a person faces a six-month suspension assuming the driver was over the age of 21, there was no refusal of the chemical test, and there were no injuries as a result of the DUI. You can read my previous posts about the nuances of a first-time DUI license suspension.

If, however, a person suffers a DUI and they have previously been convicted of a DUI within the past 10 years, then the suspension increases significantly.

A second DUI will trigger a two-year suspension and a third DUI will trigger a three-year suspension. If a driver suffers a fourth DUI within 10 years, they are facing a four-year suspension, but they may also be deemed a “habitual traffic offender” and can have their license revoked permanently.

Although Bettcher’s 27th DUI arrest occurred in 2010, it’s unclear whether any of his previous DUI’s occurred within a 10-year window.

I’m no mathematician, but at 64-years-old, as Bettcher was, I can’t imagine that the convictions could have been spaced out such that he would have been able to avoid the habitual traffic offender status and permanent revocation here in California.

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DUI with Keys in the Ignition but No Driving?

Friday, August 4th, 2017

Not only do I practice DUI defense and write these posts on DUI-related topics, but I also teach law which sometimes includes teaching students what is required for a DUI. Students are often surprised when I tell them that, in California, driving must occur for a person to be arrested, charged, and convicted of a California DUI.

States are split on whether a person can get a DUI for merely having their keys in the ignition. States that don’t require that the defendant actually drive are called “dominion and control” states. Fortunately, California is not one of those states.

In states that have “dominion and control” DUI laws, if a person is intoxicated and has dominion and control of their vehicle with the mere ability to drive, they can be arrested, charged, and convicted of that state’s DUI laws. California, on the other hand, requires that the defendant actually drive the vehicle.

In 1991, the California Supreme Court in the case of Mercer v. Department of Motor Vehicles held that the word “drive” in California’s DUI law means that the defendant volitionally and voluntarily moved the vehicle. While no movement is insufficient for a DUI, the courts have held that even a “slight movement” is enough to meet the requirement that the defendant drove the vehicle.

Therefore, in California, a person cannot get a DUI for merely having the keys in the ignition. The officers and prosecutor would need evidence, in addition to the keys being in the ignition, that the person voluntarily moved the vehicle.

When there is no direct evidence that the defendant drove, such as the officer witnessing the defendant driving, proof that the defendant drove can be established through circumstantial evidence and inferences.

For example, if a person is on the shoulder of the freeway as the sole occupant of a vehicle with the keys in the ignition and they are under the influence or have a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent or higher, the prosecutor and jury can infer that there was no other way to get to shoulder of the freeway and there was no one other person who could have driven there.

Contrast that with a scenario in which the defendant is found under the influence or with a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent or higher in their vehicle which is in their driveway and the keys are in the ignition. Here, there is no other circumstantial evidence to create the inference that the defendant actually drove the vehicle.

So, just because you can’t be arrested, charged, and convicted of a DUI with just the keys in the ignition, doesn’t mean that a you should be drunk in a vehicle with keys in the ignition. Don’t put it past law enforcement and prosecutors to try to establish that a person drove even if ever so slightly.

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Miranda Warnings and the California DUI

Thursday, July 20th, 2017

An officer pulls over a person and begins asking questions. “Where are you going?” “Where are you coming from?” “Have you had anything to drink?”

The driver says, “I’m going home from the bar and I had two beers.” Boom. The next thing that the driver knows is that they’re getting arrested and only then did the officer read the Miranda Warnings to the driver.

Why did the officer not read the driver the Miranda Warnings before they arrested him or her? And more importantly, can this be used to help the driver’s DUI case?

All statements given to law enforcement must be voluntarily given, even those given during a DUI stop. The United States Supreme Court in the landmark case of Arizona v. Miranda said that a statement cannot be voluntarily given if a person doesn’t know they have a right not to say anything under the 5th Amendment. Therefore, in order for a statement to be voluntarily given, a person must be made aware that they have a right to remain silent.

Thus, was we have the Miranda Warnings.  

So, when must law enforcement actually read a person their Miranda Warnings?

Courts have held that an officer must read a person their Miranda Warnings before a “custodial interrogation.” This means after an arrest and before an interrogation.

When a person is stopped on suspicion of a DUI or even a traffic violation that leads to a DUI investigation, the person is not arrested even though they may be temporarily detained. And inevitably the officer is going to ask questions after stopping the person.

Now, the person has the right not to speak to the officers or answer their questions. But the officer’s duty to advise the driver of the Miranda Warnings has not yet been triggered because the person is not yet under arrest.

Questions asked during this time are considered merely preliminary in nature. And yes, any answers given by the driver during this time are fair game for officers and prosecutors to use in a DUI case against the driver.

It would be a different story if, after the DUI stop, the driver is arrested, but not given Miranda Warnings. If the officer then proceeds to ask the driver questions and the driver answers, those answers would be in violation of Miranda and thus in violation of the 5th Amendment.

So whether it’s before a driver is arrested or after with Miranda Warnings given, a person never has to talk to officers or answer questions. The 5th Amendment right to remain silent exists whether the Miranda Warnings are given or not. Use it! When stopped on suspicion of a California DUI, simply respond to any questions with, “I respectfully decline to answer any questions under the 5th Amendment. Am I under arrest or am I free to leave?”

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