Prosecutors Decline to Prosecute Long Beach Councilwoman for DUI

Thursday, October 26th, 2017

This story is disturbing to me not just because it occurred in my hometown of Long Beach, but because it exemplifies the partiality with which prosecutors and police treat DUI’s of those whom they have a working relationship with versus everyday citizens.

Prosecutors have decided not to prosecute Long Beach Councilwoman, Jeannine Pearce with domestic violence nor driving under the influence in a June 3rd incident involving her former chief of staff, Devin Cotter.

District attorney declines to charge Long Beach Councilwoman with drunk driving, domestic violence

October 26, 2017, Los Angeles Times – Prosecutors have decided not to charge Long Beach Councilwoman Jeannine Pearce with domestic violence or driving under the influence in connection with a June clash with her former chief of staff.

But a district attorney’s memo detailing the decision also raises questions about the Long Beach Police Department’s response to the June 3 incident involving the councilwoman and Devin Cotter.

In its initial statement, the Police Department said it received a call for assistance from the California Highway Patrol about a possible drunk driving incident on the shoulder of the 710 Freeway in Long Beach at 2:40 a.m.

The city’s officers smelled alcohol on Pearce, who admitted to drinking that night, according to the district attorney’s memo. A field sobriety test conducted about 4 a.m. showed she was mildly impaired.

But the memo said a test of the councilwoman’s blood alcohol level was not conducted until 4:20 a.m., nearly two hours after the CHP called. At that point, the test showed Pearce had a blood alcohol level of 0.06%, under the legal limit of 0.08%, the memo said.

The testing device used on Pearce was unreliable, the prosecutor’s memo said. A department toxicologist had recommended it not be used a month before the incident. Additional tests were not performed, according to the district attorney’s memo.

A police spokesman said in a statement that officers initially investigated whether domestic violence had occurred when they arrived, interviewing Cotter and Pearce before realizing that the councilwoman had been drinking. At that point, the officers called for a colleague who is a certified drug recognition expert to investigate, Sgt. Brad Johnson said in the statement.

He said the testing device had been “tagged to be replaced but was not removed from its storage cabinet. The officer who retrieved the device did not realize … and unfortunately used it during the DUI investigation.”

Police at the scene saw Cotter with swelling, redness and a cut to his head and cuts to his hand, according to the district attorney’s memo. Pearce at one point had shoved Cotter, causing him to fall to the ground, the memo said.

Prosecutors ultimately decided that Pearce, who was first elected to the City Council in 2016, could argue she was defending herself when she shoved Cotter.

Pearce said she could not immediately comment. Cotter could not be reached for comment.

 

I can tell you that, had this been an average Joe Schmoe driver, it would not have ended up in a refusal to file DUI or domestic violence charges.

Many DUI cases are filed everyday where the blood alcohol content is below the legal limit or a breathalyzer is faulty. While it may have been true that Pearce was under the limit at the time of the test and that the breathalyzer was inaccurate, had it been a regular member of the public, charges for driving under the influence would still have been filed and prosecutors would have left it to the defendant their attorney to dispute the results.

The same thing can likely be said for the refusal to file domestic violence charges. If prosecutors declined to prosecute domestic violence charges when anybody “could argue [they were] defending [themselves],” then they’d never prosecute anyone. And believe me, in the many domestic violence cases I’ve handled, not once has a prosecutor dropped a case because a person “could argue that they were defending themselves.”

So now let me ask you: Is this a coincidence?

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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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Two DUI’s in Less than Three Hours

Thursday, June 15th, 2017

A Wisconsin man was arrested twice in about two and a half hours for driving under the influence according to Ashwaubenon, Wisconsin Public Safety. What’s more, he’s only 18 years old.

18-year-old Preston Bierhals was on his way home from a graduation party last week when he lost control of his vehicle and struck a light pole. Bierhals told responding officers that he was trying to make a phone call when he lost control of his car.

His blood alcohol content was later determined to be 0.157 percent.

At the time, Bierhals’s license was suspended.

“The legal limit for him is zero, but he was still above the 0.08, he was over 0.10 actually both times,” said Capt. Jody Crocker.

Bierhals was booked for “operating while intoxicated” (OWI), which is the Wisconsin equivalent of California’s “driving under the influence” (DUI).

Instead of keeping Bierhals to sober up, officers released him to someone who signed a Responsibility Agreement not to allow him to drive a vehicle.

“They signed an affidavit that says to us that they will take that responsibility in lieu of this person sitting in jail for the next 12 hours. Here of course, that didn’t work,” said Capt. Crocker.

Why didn’t it work? Well, because less than three hours later, an officer working traffic detail for a triathlon that morning spotted Bierhals driving and recognized him from the arrest just hours prior.

The officer stopped Bierhals once again and administered field sobriety tests to which Bierhals failed again. And again he was arrested on suspicion of OWI.

This time, Bierhals’s blood alcohol content was a 0.121. This is consistent with the average rate of alcohol metabolism (burn-off) of 0.015 percent per hour, assuming no more alcohol was consumed since the first arrest.

In Wisconsin, prosecutors cannot file charges for a second drunk driving offense until the citation Bierhals received for the first OWI is resolved.

According to Capt. Crocker, law enforcement is looking into whether charges should be filed against the person whom Bierhals was released to.

Some of you may be thinking, “What could happen to someone like that?”

Well, here in California a minor who is caught driving with alcohol in their system can face several charges and penalties.

California Vehicle Code section 23136 makes it illegal for a minor to have a blood alcohol content of 0.01 percent or greater while driving. This is knowns as California’s “Zero Tolerance” law for underage drivers. Under this law, a minor faces a one-year suspension of their driver’s license.

California Vehicle Code section 23140 makes it illegal for a minor to have a blood alcohol content of 0.05 percent or greater while driving. Unlike section 23136, this section is an infraction which can result in fines of up to $100 and a one-year suspension of their driver’s license.

However, in Bierhals’s case, had it occurred here in California, prosecutors would have likely charged him with the standard adult DUI under California Vehicle Code section 23152 (driving under the influence and driving with a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent or greater). A violation of section 23152 is a misdemeanor which carries a three to nine month DUI program, three years of summary probation, up to $1000 in fines, up to six months in jail, and a six-month suspension of driving privileges.

Of course, Bierhals is facing the penalties for a second-time DUI as well. A second time DUI, here in California will also be charged as a misdemeanor, but this time, he’s facing between 96 hours and one year in jail, an 18-month DUI program, and two-year suspension of driving privileges.

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Can Police Go Off of an Anonymous DUI Tip?

Thursday, June 8th, 2017

I am currently representing a person for a California DUI who was arrested after an anonymous tipster informed law enforcement that a possible drunk driver was on the road. Such a situation often raises the question, “Can law enforcement arrest someone based on an anonymous tip when the officers themselves have not witnessed any conduct that would lead them to believe a driver was driving under the influence?”

Unfortunately, the United States Supreme Court recently held that law enforcement can go off of an anonymous tip of a potential drunk driver in the case of Navarette v. California _____ U.S. _____ (Docket No. 12-9490)(2014).

In August 2008, a California Highway Patrol dispatcher received a call from a motorist who had been run off the Highway 1 near Fort Bragg by someone driving a pickup truck. The anonymous caller provided the license plate number of the pickup. A short time later, CHP spotted the pickup and pulled it over. As the CHP officers approached, they smelled marijuana and discovered four bags of it in the bed of the pickup.

The occupants of the pickup were identified as brothers, Lorenzo and Jose Navarette. The brothers plead guilty to transporting marijuana after they unsuccessfully attempted to challenge the constitutionality of the search. Both were sentenced to 90 days in jail.

The First District Court of Appeal in San Francisco relied on the 2006 California Supreme Court ruling of People v. Wells (2006) 38 Cal.App.4th 1078,  in upholding the conviction. The Court in that case said that “the grave risks posed by an intoxicated highway driver” justifies a brief investigatory stop. It found that there are certain dangers alleged in anonymous tips that are so great, such as a person carrying a bomb, which would justify a search even without a showing of reliability. The court went on to say that a “drunk driver is not at all unlike a bomb, and a mobile one at that.”

In its 3-0 ruling, the appellate court said, “The report that the [Navarettes’] vehicle had run someone off the road sufficiently demonstrated an ongoing danger to other motorists to justify the stop without direct corroboration of the vehicle’s illegal activity.”

The case was appealed to the United States Supreme Court which held that an anonymous tip can give law enforcement the authority to pull someone over on suspicion of driving under the influence.

The Court held that “under appropriate circumstances, an anonymous tip can demonstrate ‘sufficient indicia of reliability to provide reasonable suspicion to make [an] investigatory stop,’” quoting Alabama v. White (1990) 496 U.S. 325, 327.

In finding “sufficient indicia of reliability,” the court relied on 1.) the fact that the caller claimed eyewitness knowledge of dangerous driving, 2.) the fact that the tip was made contemporaneously with the incident, and 3.) the fact that the caller used 911 to make the tip likely knowing that the call could be traced.

According to the court, if the tip bears “sufficient indicia of reliability,” officers need not observe driving which would give rise to suspicion that a person was driving under the influence or even that the driver committed a traffic violation. They only need the unverified and unsupported anonymous tip.  

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Do I have to Take a Breath Test?

Thursday, June 1st, 2017

You heard me say a couple of weeks ago that breathalyzers are inaccurate and, as a result, lawyers can challenge the results of a particular breathalyzer. Lawyers, however, cannot challenge breathalyzers generally even though they are inaccurate.

This begs the question: Do you have to take a breathalyzer test?

Like many things in law, the answer is that it depends. In California, there are two different “breathalyzer” tests. One test is required by law, while the other is not.

According to California Vehicle Code section 23612(h), the PAS test “indicates the presence or concentration of alcohol based on a breath sample in order to establish reasonable cause to believe the person was driving [under the influence]…[it] is a field sobriety test and may be used by an officer as a further investigative tool.”

The California Vehicle Code is referring to the roadside breathalyzer, called a preliminary alcohol screening test (PAS test), that officers use to obtain the evidence they need to make a DUI arrest. As an officer makes a stop, whether the officer suspects a DUI or not, they don’t have the evidence needed to arrest the driver on suspicion of a DUI. To obtain that evidence, the officer may ask the driver questions, the officer may have the driver perform field sobriety tests, and the officer may ask the driver to submit to a PAS test. In fact, the PAS test is considered a field sobriety test.

Like the field sobriety tests, the PAS test is optional. Also like the field sobriety tests, a driver should not submit to the PAS test.

In fact, the investigating officer must advise the driver that the PAS test is, in fact, optional. California Vehicle Code section 23612(i) states that “If the officer decides to use a [PAS], the officer shall advise the person that he or she is requesting that person to take a [PAS] test to assist the officer in determining if that person is under the influence. The person’s obligation to submit to a [chemical test under California’s Implied Consent Law] is not satisfied by the person submitting to a [PAS] test. The officer shall advise the person of that fact and of the person’s right to refuse to take the [PAS] test.”

If a driver tells the officer they consumed alcohol or the driver performs and fail the field sobriety tests or the driver provides a PAS sample that shows the presence of alcohol, the driver will likely be arrested on suspicion of a California DUI.

Once the driver is arrested, the California Vehicle Code requires that the driver submit to a “chemical test,” which can either be a breathalyzer test or a blood test. This is called California’s “implied consent law.”

California Vehicle Code section 23612(a)(1)(A) states, “A person who drives a motor vehicle is deemed to have given his or her consent to chemical testing of his or her blood or breath for the purpose of determining the alcohol content of his or her blood, if lawfully arrested for an offense allegedly committed in violation of [California’s DUI laws].”

In other words, if you can legally drive in California, you have impliedly consented to a chemical test if you are lawfully arrested on suspicion of a DUI.

Unlike the PAS test, if you are arrested for a DUI and you do not want to provide a blood sample, the chemical breath test is not optional.  

In fact, refusing the chemical test can lead to increased penalties such as a longer DUI school, a longer license suspension, and even jail time.

To sum up, the pre-arrest PAS test is optional and you should always politely decline this test. A post-arrest chemical breath test is required provided the suspect opts not to provide a blood sample.

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