Monthly Archives: April 2013

Can You Be Charged with Attempting to Drive Drunk?

Let’s say you’ve had too much to drink, and you get into your car, put the key into the ignition and….the car won’t start:  the battery is dead.  About that time, an officer arrives and asks you to step out of the car for some field sobriety tests….

Is it possible to be convicted of attempting to drive under the influence?

The courts are not in agreement on whether there is such an offense as attempted drunk driving.  In Strong v. State, 87 S.W.3d 206, for example, a Texas court held there is not.  In People v. Garcia, 262 Cal. Rptr. 915, however, a California court said there was – but said also that it was "not unmindful that there might be some troublesome questions which will have to be resolved in later cases."

Troublesome questions?  The court didn’t explain that cryptic comment, but one that occurs to me is that  attempted DUI becomes a specific intent crime.  So what, you ask? 

Well, there are two kinds of offenses: those requiring only a general intent, and those requiring a specific intent.  Burglary, for example, is a specific intent crime: it requires entry with the intent to commit theft or a felony; without that intent, it is just a trespass.  DUI is a general intent crime: the prosecutor need only prove the act of driving under the influence – not the intent to do it. 

You can, of course, be convicted of attempting to commit a criminal offense.  But it follows that to attempt it you must intend to commit the offense: attempt requires a specific intent to commit the crime (along with steps toward its commission).  Thus, attempted DUI would become a specific intent crime.

So, while intoxication is not defense where there is only a general intent required, it can be a defense where specific intent must be proven:  intoxication can prevent the person from being able to knowingly and intelligently form the intent to accomplish the criminal act.

In other words, we may have a Catch-22:  If a person is mentally and physically too impaired to drive, doesn’t that fact tend to negate the specific intent required for an attempt to drive intoxicated

A "troublesome question"….

Field Sobriety Tests Are Designed to be Failed

Roadside field sobriety tests (“FSTs”) are commonly used by police officers in DUI investigations to determine whether a driver is under the influence of alcohol. Typically, they consist of a battery of 3-5 excercises, such as heel-to-toe, one-leg stand, “nystagmus” (“follow the pencil with your eyes”), finger-to-nose, alphabet recitation, “Rohmberg” (eyes-closed, modified position-of-attention), etc. The officer will subjectively decide whether the individual “failed”.

These DUI tests have an aura of scientific credibility to juries. Unfortunately, however, they have no real basis in science and are almost useless in a drunk driving case.

First, as any traffic officer or DUI attorney knows, the decision to arrest is made at the driver’s window; the FSTs given supposedly to determine probable cause to arrest are actually for the purpose of providing “evidence” to support the officer’s opinion of intoxication.

Second, since the officer has already made up his mind, his subjective decision as to whether a person passed or failed field sobriety tests is suspect: as with any human, he will “see” what he expects to see.

Third, the conditions under which the field sboriety tests are taken almost guarantee failure: usually late at night, possibly cold, along a graveled or sloped roadside, with bright headlights from passing cars (setting up wind waves), the officer’s flashlight and patrol car’s strobe and headlights providing the lighting — and given to a person who is nervous, frightened and completely unfamiliar with the tests.

Fourth, field sobriety tests are irrelevant and, in fact, designed for failure. What scientific basis exists to validate FSTs in a DUI investigation? Only a “study” by a private business firm, the “Southern California Research Institute”, with a grant from the federal government to find a “standardized” battery of usable DUI tests.

To earn their money, SCRI came up with three tests which, they said, were not foolproof but were much better than all of the other FSTs that were being used. These three tests were heel-to-toe, one-leg-stand and nystagmus.  Yet after some study even this company concluded that, using the three standardized tests, 47 percent of the subjects tested would have been arrested for DUI — even though they were under the then-.10% limit.  Burns and Moskowitz, Psychophysical Tests for DWI Arrest: Final Report, DOT-HS-802-424, NHTSA, 1977.

Unhappy with this, the federal government sent the company back to the drawing board and, in 1981 the firm came up with some better figures: only 32 percent of those who “failed” the tests were actually innocent. (Tharp, Burns and Moskowitz, Development and Field Sobriety Test of Psychophysical Tests for DWI Arrests: Final Report, DOT-HS-805-864, NHTSA, 1981.) Thus, SCRI was paid to put their stamp of approval on a set of field sobriety tests.

But what has been the reaction of the (non-profit) scientific community? In 1991, Dr. Spurgeon Cole of Clemson University conducted a study on the accuracy of FSTs. His staff videotaped individuals performing six common field sobriety tests, then showed the tapes to 14 police officers and asked them to decide whether the suspects had “had too much to drink and drive”. Unknown to the officers, the blood-alcohol concentration of each of the 21 DUI subjects was .00% — stone sober.

The results: the officers gave their opinion that 46% of these innocent people were too drunk to drive! In other words, the field sobriety tests were hardly more accurate at detecting intoxication than flipping a coin. Cole and Nowaczyk, “Field Sobriety Tests: Are they Designed for Failure?”, 79 Perceptual and Motor Skills Journal 99 (1994).

When is a Refusal Not a Refusal?

When a DUI suspect is arrested, he is asked to submit to a blood, breath or urine test. If he refuses, his license will be suspended — for a considerably longer time than if a test had shown .08% or higher.  In California, for example, the suspension is for one year — compared to 4 months for a non-refusal.  In addition, many states impose an increased penalty in the criminal phase, usually a mandatory jail sentence; some states make refusal a separate crime independent of the underlying DUI.

Finally, the fact of refusing can be used as evidence of “consciousness of guilt” in trial — a practice which has been held by the U.S. Supreme Court not to be a violation of the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. (See my earlier post, “Believing You Have Constitutional Rights in a DUI Case Can be Dangerous”.)

The reason for harsher treatment is, of course, to encourage suspects to provide evidence considerably more reliable than an officer’s opinion: it is the evidence that is desired, more than a desire to punish for not cooperating. It would follow, of course, that if a suspect changes his mind and agrees to provide a blood, breath or urine sample — what is referred to as “curing” the refusal — there would be no penalties.

Wrong — in most states. A summary of the situation was presented by a New Jersey appellate court where the defendant had initially refused to take a breath test until he could speak with his attorney:

We have been referred to various out-of-state decisions in the briefs of counsel. The majority rule in those cases which have an implied consent statute like ours….is that the initial refusal is final and hence that there is no right to “cure” an initial refusal… The cases expressing the majority view essentially turn on the question of the unreasonableness of having police officers turn aside from other duties to administer a test after the driver has initially refused. The cases allowing a “cure” generally do so on the basis that a change of mind after a relatively short delay does not prejudice the presentation of the state’s evidence nor defeat the purpose of the implied consent statute. State v. Corrado, 446 A.2d 1229.

The New Jersey court decided to follow the majority approach. A Florida appellate court, however, chose the opposite view:

The subsequent consent to take the test cures the first refusal when the request to take the first test is made within a reasonable time after the the prior first refusal…. By approving a flexible rule we believe that this important evidence will be more frequently available and therefore the prophylactic purpose of the implied consent law will be achieved. Larmer v. State, 522 So.2d 941.

The disagreement, of course, reflects two very different underlying philosophies: Which is more important — obtaining key evidence or punishing non-cooperation? The minority recognizes that actual evidence of blood-alcohol concentration is crucial; the majority prefers to focus on deterring future suspects from refusing. Which is the “correct” view?

As usual, California has adopted its own approach: If a suspect refuses, he can be physically restrained and a blood sample forcefully taken from him — and he will still be charged with a refusal.  Many other states are following this approach.