Monthly Archives: May 2013

Reactions to the Fed’s New .05% Limit

A couple of days ago I commented on the just-released recommendations by the National Transportation Safety Board for a new drunk driving blood-alcohol limit of .05%.  Following are a few of the reactions….

Feds Float Lower DWI Limit; Some Say It Will Reduce Fatalities; Others Say It's a Money-Grab

Newsday, New York.  May 14 — One drink for a 120 pound woman, two drinks for a 160 pound man.

That's all it would take to be considered legally drunk under a new federal recommendation to lower the driving while intoxicated blood-alcohol limit from .08 percent to .05 percent. It's another step in what the National Transportation Safety Board calls "Reaching Zero," a long-term effort to reduce the number of drunken driving-related fatalities.

"It is an aggressive approach," said Jared Altman, a Montrose-based defense attorney. "One would be surprised at how little you can drink and hit the .08 limit now."

Reaction to the NTSB's recommendation on Tuesday ranged from full support from road safety advocacy groups to a cautious wait-and-see approach from others.

White Plains-based attorney Richard Portale said changing the definition of "intoxicated" every few years is disingenuous. He said he'd be more willing to support the law if it merely set a limit for driving and did not try to redefine intoxication, but said he believes it's ultimately a "money-grab" by the government. Several studies have found that towns and cities enjoy a boom in court fees and related fines when blood-alcohol limits are lowered.

"They're dying for money. They don't get enough of our tax money, so now they want to change our DWI laws to generate more revenue," Portale said…

If lawmakers act on the NTSB's recommendation and lower the legal limit for drivers, it would mark the second time in a decade that the limit was lowered. New York lowered the legal limit from .10 to .08 in 2003, two years after president Bill Clinton signed a law that would withhold federal aid to states that did not lower limits to that number…

A 2000 study by Boston University's Social and Behavioral Sciences Department found that states that had dropped BAC limits to .08 percent saw a 6 percent decline in alcohol-related deaths. But a 2002 study by Connecticut's Office of Legislative Research found there was "no statistical difference" between the rate of fatalities between states with a .10 blood alcohol limit and states with a .08 limit.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving on Tuesday thanked the NTSB "for bring the American public's attention to the fact that drinking and driving continues to be a major problem on our highways … and that additional steps have to be taken to save the unnecessary loss of life and injuries that occur as a result of these crashes."…

Federal Agency Recommends New DUI Limit: .05%

They’ve finally done it.  The National Transportation Safety Board today recommended lowering the blood-alcohol level for drunk driving to .05%.  

Washington, D.C.  May 14 — A common benchmark in the United States for determining when a driver is legally drunk is not doing enough to prevent alcohol-related crashes that kill about 10,000 people each year and should be made more restrictive, transportation safety investigators say.

The National Transportation Safety Board recommended on Tuesday that all 50 states adopt a blood-alcohol content (BAC) cutoff of 0.05 compared to the 0.08 standard on the books today and used by law enforcement and the courts to prosecute drunk driving…

The NTSB investigates transportation accidents and advocates on safety issues. It cannot impose its will through regulation and can only recommend changes to federal and state agencies or legislatures, including Congress.

But the independent agency is influential on matters of public safety and its decisions can spur action from like-minded legislators and transportation agencies nationwide. States set their own BAC standards….

In the early 1980s, when grass-roots safety groups brought attention to drunk driving, many states required a 0.15 BAC rate to demonstrated intoxication.

But over the next 24 years, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and other groups pushed states to adopt the 0.08 BAC standard, the last state falling in line in 2004…

Based upon this recommendation — and, as in the past, some pressure on the states to withhold federal highway funds if the new DUI standard is not adopted — it is likely that we will all see the.05% level enacted as law over the next few years.

The article mentioned an earlier blood-alcohol level of .15% in some states.  Let me offer a more accurate history to give context to today’s federal action…. 

The original drunk driving laws were simple and fair: Don’t drive under the influence of alcohol (DUI). Then, many years ago, law enforcement came up with crude devices to measure alcohol on the breath of drunk driving suspects. But what did, say, a .13% blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) mean?  They turned to the American Medical Association which, in 1938, created a “Committee to Study Problems of Motor Vehicle Accidents”; at the same time, the National Safety Council set up a “Committee on Tests for Intoxication”.

After some study, these two groups came up with their findings: a driver with .15% BAC or higher could be presumed to be “under the influence”; those under .15% could not. That’s right: .15%. And that recommendation lasted for 22 years. But prosecutors and certain groups of “concerned mothers” were not happy with the low DUI arrest and conviction rates.

Under increasing political pressure, the committees “revisited” the question in 1960 and agreed to lower the presumed level of intoxication to .10%. Had the human body changed in 22 years? Had the AMA been negligent in their earlier studies? Or were politics and law trumping scientific truth?

Well, the arrest and conviction rates shot up, but there were still too many people escaping the DUI net. Then MADD was formed by Candy Lightner (later to quit the organization in disgust and become a spokesperson for the liquor industry). Soon after, legislation began appearing in many states that created a second crime: driving with a BAC of .10% or higher.

This new crime did not require the driver to be affected by alcohol: even if sober, he would be guilty if his blood-alcohol was .10%. In effect, it completely ignored the questions of intoxication, driving impairment and individual tolerance to alcohol. And, despite questions of double jeopardy, the individual could be charged and even convicted of both the traditional DUI and the new .10% crimes! This gave police and prosecutors a powerful new weapon, and drunk driving arrests/convictions jumped once again.

This was not good enough. Under increasing pressure from an ever more powerful MADD, in 1990 four states lowered the blood-alcohol level in DUI cases to .08%; others soon followed and, ten years later, federal politicians (with one eye on MADD) passed an appropriations bill in effect coercing all states into adopting the new .08% BAC standard.

Since then, there has been continued pressure on federal agencies and state legislatures to drop the blood-alcohol level to .05% — resulting in today’s announcement by the NTSB.

What is the next step in MADD’s march toward a new era of Prohibition?  Well, that should be obvious: .01% — exactly as is currently used across the country on drivers under the age of 21.  

Not coincidentally, these .01% so-called “zero tolerance” laws were also championed by MADD and imposed on all of the states by the feds with the threat of withholding highway funds.

(Thanks to Matthew S. Kensky and “Joe” for the article.)

U.S. Supreme Court Cites My Book

On April 17, 2013, the United States Supreme Court issued its long-awaited decision in the case of Missouri vs. McNeely.  

The DUI case involved the right of police officers to forcefully take a blood sample from a driver without his consent or a search warrant.  The Court ruled that absent any exigent circumstances, such a taking of blood constituted a violation of the 4th Amendment's right to be free from unreasonable searches of the person.  Natural dissipation of alcohol from the system (present in every case) did not constitute such an exigency.  

I am flattered and greatly honored that in his written opinion Chief Justice Roberts cited my book, Drunk Driving Defense (7th edition), as recognized legal authority in the field.

Driving Under the Influence of…a Breath Mint?

Just when you thought things couldn't get any more ridiculous, a Texas court of appeals has ruled that evidence a driver took a breath mint provides sufficient additional evidence to support an arrest for drunk driving — even though the officer admitted he had insufficient evidence before that.

Court Finds Breath Mints Are Evidence of  DUI

Lewisville, TX.  April 18 — Use of breath mints can be considered evidence a driver is intoxicated, according to a divided Texas Court of Appeals ruling delivered earlier this month. The three-judge panel made the decision in the case of limousine service driver Robert Richardson who was stopped in Lewisville, Texas on August 25, 2010 while transporting customers from the airport.

Texas Department of Public Safety Trooper Fulford was about to issue a speeding ticket to a motorcycle on Interstate 35E when he noticed Richardson's Chevy Tahoe change lanes without signaling, almost hitting the motorcycle. Trooper Fulford was concerned primarily about the bad driving, but in the back of his mind he thought it could also be a case of driving under the influence (DUI). Once stopped, there was a mild odor of alcohol in the Tahoe, the passengers denied drinking, and Richardson was nervous. Trooper Fulford told Richardson he would write him a warning for his failure to signal before changing lanes. When he returned from his squad car with a warning notice in hand, Trooper Fulford said he noted an "overwhelming" odor of breath mints.

"Did you just take a breath mint?" Trooper Fulford asked.

When Richardson said yes, he was ordered out of the Tahoe. From there, he was arrested and convicted of DUI. Richardson appealed, arguing the traffic stop was complete after the trooper handed him back his driver's license with a warning, and that anything that happened beyond that point amounted to an illegal detention. The Texas judges acknowledged the principle that once a traffic stop concludes, it should not be used as a fishing expedition for unrelated criminal activity. The court had to decide whether the use of breath mints constituted a specific articulable fact suggesting another crime had been committed beyond the bad lane change.

The appellate judges agreed with the trial court that all of the clues Trooper Fulford picked up on prior to smelling the breath mints combined to provide the suspicion needed to make the search reasonable and consistent with the Fourth Amendment.

"These facts, which Trooper Fulford identified during his testimony at the suppression hearing, were sufficient to provide him with reasonable suspicion that Richardson had been driving while intoxicated," Justice Anne Gardner ruled for the court. "We overrule Richardson's sole point. Having overruled Richardson's sole point, we affirm the trial court's judgment."

Thanks to Joe and