Monthly Archives: March 2019

Should California Lower its BAC Limit?

It’s not a novel question. Should California lower the blood alcohol content limit before someone can be arrested, charged, and convicted of a DUI in the state?

Although a nationwide blood alcohol content limit was suggested prior, it was not until 2001 that the Department of Transportation said it would cut funding to states that did not maintain a blood alcohol content limit of 0.08 percent for DUI cases. As a result, all states adopted a 0.08 percent blood alcohol content limit. However, as of January 1st of this year, Utah became the first state to lower the blood alcohol content limit to 0.05 percent making it the strictest in the country.

A new bill introduced in California hopes to follow in Utah’s footsteps.

Introduced by Assemblywoman Autumn Burke (D-Marina del Rey), AB1713, otherwise known as Liam’s Law, would lower California’s BAC limit to 0.05 percent.

The bill was named in honor of a 15-month old who was struck and killed by a drunk driver in 2016 when his aunt was pushing his stroller across Hawthorne Boulevard. Liam was the son of former mixed martial art fighter Marcus Kowal and his wife, Mishel Eder. Since then, both have been pushing for a lower BAC limit and Burke said that she had been influence by them.

“Every year, we see drunk drivers kill or injure our friends and loved ones because they thought they were OK to drive,” said Assemblyman Heath Flora (R-Ripon), who co-authored the bill and who also introduced a bill to increase the penalties for repeat DUI offenders. “Lowering the [blood alcohol content] limit to .05 percent has [been] shown to decrease DUI-related traffic fatalities by serving as a deterrent to folks driving drunk in the first place.”

Flora is referring to studies that suggest people begin to start feeling the effects of alcohol at 0.04 percent, and which have been used by the National Transportation Safety to justify its support of a 0.05 percent limit.

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.

This raises another question: Is this law merely changing the definition of “drunk” to cast a wider net, thus creating more “criminals”?

“When (a bill) is first introduced, the 10,000-foot view is, ‘This is a law that’s tough on drunk driving. It should pass pretty easily,’” said Jackson Shedelbower, spokesman for the American Beverage Institute. “But in reality, it’s not tough on drunk driving. It’s punishing moderate, social drinkers. It’s focusing traffic safety resources away from people who are the real problem toward people who aren’t the problem.”

Shedelbower went on to say that most DUI-related collisions are caused by drivers with BAC levels higher than 0.05 and repeat offenders, and that having a BAC level of 0.05 is less impairing than talking on a hands-free cell phone while driving.

Should the bill become law, many could be arrested after having a single drink and certainly when they’re not even drunk. I’m sorry, but I thought DUI laws were meant to protect against impaired driving. I’m not so sure that the hoped effect of the bill is worth the collateral consequence of arresting, charging, and convicting non-impaired drivers.  

Maine Supreme Court Affirms DUI Conviction Even Though Science Suggests Defendant was Involuntarily Intoxicated

Apparently, some high courts in this country don’t care whether science can show a person is innocent.

Earlier this month, the Maine Supreme Court denied the appeal of a man who sought to introduce the testimony of a medical expert at trial that he suffers from auto-brewery syndrome.

Believe it or not, there is a rare medical condition that causes a person to “brew” alcohol within their body causing them to become intoxicated even though they haven’t had a sip of actual alcohol; hence the name, “auto-brewery syndrome.”

If you know how beer is made, you’ll know that yeast is added to grain extract (which is essentially sugar). When the yeast eats the sugar, it releases carbon dioxide (which creates the carbonation in beer) and alcohol (which gives beer its intoxicating effects). This process is known as fermentation. A person with auto-brewery syndrome produces unusually high levels of yeast in their gastrointestinal tract which, in turns, eats the sugars that a person ingests creating both carbon dioxide and alcohol in the person’s system even though they haven’t actually ingested any alcohol. In some instances of auto-brewery syndrome, the production of alcohol is so much that it can actually cause a person to become legally intoxicated!

I think you can see where I’m going with this. John Burbank claimed to be such a person afflicted with this rare disorder when he was arrested on suspicion of a DUI in 2016 because his blood alcohol content was 0.31 percent, almost four times the legal limit. In preparation for trial, Burbank sought to introduce an expert who would have testified that he suffered from this condition and that the condition caused him to become intoxicated through no fault of his own.

The trial court judge, however, denied the introduction of Burbank’s expert. And without the expert’s testimony, Burbank opted to plead no contest and filed an appeal challenging the denial of the expert’s testimony.

The Maine Supreme Court concluded that the trial court was correct in not allowing the expert to testify, thus affirming Burbank’s DUI conviction.

The Maine Supreme Court justified its conclusion by saying that, although the expert was a P.h.D. in toxicology and physiology, she was merely basing her opinions several articles regarding the condition, but that she, herself, had not worked directly with cases of auto-brewery syndrome or with Burbank and his condition.  Additionally, the court pointed out, that Burbank’s symptoms were different than those who were the subjects of the articles that the expert was relying on.

Bear in mind that auto-brewery syndrome is extremely rare with far less available research and knowledge about it than many other conditions.

The court went on to say that the denial of the expert’s testimony did not amount to a denial of Burbank’s constitutional right to present a defense because, according to the justices, the denial was a “reasonable restriction.”

I don’t know about you, but this sounds like an unreasonable restriction to me. In law, for expert testimony to be admissible, it must be relevant and reliable. It is relevant because it could show that Burbank did not choose to become intoxicated when he drove. The law should not and, in most cases, does not punish people for things they cannot control. The law should only punish people who, through voluntariness and free will, engage in criminal conduct. And it is reliable because, while the expert may not have specific knowledge as to Burbank’s auto-brewery syndrome, it is nonetheless a legitimate and recognized medical condition, albeit with little research on it because of its rarity. People with rare conditions should not be disadvantaged and punished merely because their condition is rare, which is exactly what the Maine Supreme Court is doing.

What’s more, the concurring justice concluded that the defense of involuntary intoxication should not be allowed in DUI cases because “it may invite many ‘I didn’t know there was vodka in my orange juice’ or similar defenses to [DUI]…charges.”

So what?! So what if it invites future defenses? If it is a plausible defense to a crime for which the government can take away someone’s freedom, a defendant should be allowed to assert it. It’s their life on the line, not the judges. And pardon me, but I thought it was the jury’s job to determine if a defense is true or not. If the jury had heard the expert testimony, but still concluded that Burbank did drink and drive, then so be it. At least he was provided the opportunity to defend himself.  

What’s next? Courts not allowing an alibi defense because it could invite many “I was somewhere else” defenses?

[October 28, 2019]

Another case of auto-brewery syndrome has appeared in the news, and this time, the courts took it seriously. Read about it more here: https://ktla.com/2019/10/25/north-carolina-man-pulled-over-for-dui-said-he-hadnt-been-drinking-researchers-found-his-body-produced-alcohol/

School Bus Driver DUI with 26 Students Onboard, Abandons Bus and Students

When parents send their children off to school, they expect that the adults in charge maintain a certain level of care and maintain a level of responsibility towards the children once in their care. It is not outrageous to think that that expectation extends to the time that the children are onboard a school bus traveling to and from school.

Sadly, one school bus driver broke parents’ and children’s trust with her erratic driving caused by alleged intoxication.

On March 1, a Pennsylvania school bus driver, later identified as Lori Ann Mankos, was driving 26 middle and high school students home around 2:50 p.m. Initial reports mentioned a disturbance on the bus that caused Mankos to pull the bus into a gas station. There, she parked the bus, exited, and handed the keys to a gas station employee and proceeded to walk away.

As shocking as this seems, thankfully no children were harmed. Some parents picked their children up from the gas station and others were taken home by a different bus driver.

A further investigation revealed that this seemingly innocuous, but nonetheless irresponsible, act by a school bus driver was far worse than merely abandoning the bus at the gas station. The police reported that soon after the students were picked up by Mankos, some of the students noticed a change in Mankos’s driving pattern. She wasn’t taking the usual route to the students’ home. Additionally, the students became concerned when Mankos took a right-hand turn too fast and the bus ended up almost halfway into the opposing lane. The students then started to record their wild ride and protested the erratic driving. This, apparently was the disturbance that caused Mankos to pull the bus into the gas station.

Students reported that in response to their protests, Mankos swore at them and flipped them off. In one of the videos recorded by the students, she can be heard asking if the children preferred that she stop the bus and the students call their parents to pick them up. When they agreed to her suggestion, she parked at a nearby gas station where she then proceeded to hand her keys to the station attendant and walk away. She initially refused to let the students off the bus, but the students were able to open the emergency door and get themselves out of the bus. She can be heard telling the students to “go f**k themselves.”

Police found Mankos at her residence and took her into custody. She has been charged with DUI, one count of careless driving, one count of reckless driving, and 26 counts of child endangerment (one count for each student aboard the bus).

Mankos’s mother told reporters that her daughter hadn’t been herself since she started to drive that bus route and that she believed that her daughter had a nervous breakdown.

Information has not been released regarding what substances may have been the cause of Mankos’s erratic behavior or if she has suffered any previous DUI convictions. However, in a profession where the primary responsibility is to children and their wellbeing, one would hope that the school district and bus contractor will take this opportunity to be more selective with their employees or perhaps provide better emotional and/or mental health support for their employees.

“This is not what we expect of any of our drivers,” said a spokesman for the bus contractor, Cincinnati-based First Student, which employs the driver. “Our first priority is the safety of the students, which is why we sent a reliever bus to pick them up and take them to their homes once we found they were stranded. All students are safe and accounted for. If there’s appropriate action warranted against the driver as a result of this investigation, that action will be taken.”

“Nothing like this has ever happened before in my 28 years with the district,” Northampton School District Superintendent Joseph Kovalchik told the Morning Call. “We’re extremely upset by this, but very thankful that none of the students were hurt.”

Canadian Immigration Crackdown on Foreign DUI Offenders

As of December 18, 2018, Canada’s Bill C-46 became law, classifying impaired driving offenses as “serious criminality” rather than “simple” within the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.

So how does the passing of Bill C-46 affect us stateside?

First, we should understand what the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act of Canada is. This is “[a]n Act respecting immigration to Canada and the granting of refugee protection to persons who are displaced, persecuted or in danger.” As such, the act details under what circumstances immigration and refugee status is given to a non-Canadian citizen. Of those details existed Section 36 (1), which states that “a permanent resident or foreign national is deemed inadmissible to Canada if he or she is convicted of an offence that is considered serious criminality.”

Previously, serious criminality included offenses such as murder, aggravated sexual assault and drug trafficking. Now, with this new bill, impaired driving fits in this category. Even offenses such as wet reckless, which are reduced DUI offenses (see What are the Benefits (and Disadvantages) of a Wet Reckless?), are now considered in the serious criminality category.

Not only did the amendment change the categorization of DUIs, it also increased the penalty as well. What was a maximum term of imprisonment of five years is now 10 years. Canadian immigration officials are not pulling any punches.

Having a DUI offense on your record made it slightly inconvenient when travelling to Canada, but now, it can mean that it becomes extremely difficult for you to obtain a work visa in Canada or even to simply visit as a tourist (see Traveling to Canada after a California DUI Conviction).

Many of the same rules apply if you want to visit Canada after you have been convicted of a DUI with this new bill. However, one of the exceptions we mentioned in the previously noted post, is “deemed rehabilitation.” With the new bill, this method is no longer an option for those inadmissible to enter Canada due to a DUI conviction. Leaving only what is called “rehabilitation by application” as a method to entering Canada legally.

You are eligible to apply for rehabilitation if five years has passed from the completion of the sentence and are able to demonstrate that they are no longer a risk for criminal activity. Demonstrating that you are no longer a risk can come from showing a stable lifestyle, community ties, or proof that the offense was an isolated event. Simple, right? Well, the difficulty comes when we start counting the five years. Below are some of the most common sentences and the correct way to calculate the waiting period:

Suspended sentence: Five years from the date of sentencing.

Suspended sentence with a fine: Five years from the date the fine was paid. For any varying payment, the count will start from the date the final payment was paid.

Imprisonment without parole: Five years from the end of the term of imprisonment.

Imprisonment and parole: Five years from the completion of parole.

Probation: Probation is considered to be a part of the sentence. Thus, five years from the end of the probation period.

Driving prohibition: Five years from the end date of the prohibition.

You must also remember that because the new characterization of DUI is more serious than before, the immigration officials will be looking at your application with more scrutiny than they had before. The redefinition will undoubtedly make some of the applications more difficult to accept.

One saving grace is that currently this amendment is only being considered for offenses that happen after its passing. Therefore, if your offense happened before December 18, 2018 then you may be unaffected. For any permanent residents or foreign nationals already living in Canada, the amendment is not grounds for expulsion.

Can an Unconscious Driver Give Consent to have a Blood Alcohol Test?

The Founding Fathers drafted the Constitution, specifically the first 10 Amendments, mindful that the government could and may at some point in our country’s future subvert our individual rights, such as the right to be free of unreasonable governmental searches and seizures. Specifically, the Fourth Amendment prohibits the government from “unreasonable searches and seizures.” Simply put, if a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy in a particular place, the government cannot search it unless, amongst other things, it has a warrant to do so or if it obtains voluntary consent to the search.

That was then. Mitchell v. Wisconsin is now.

The United States Supreme Court is currently deciding a case that will determine if police can withdraw blood from an unconscious suspected drunk driver without their express consent.

In May of 2013, Gerald Mitchell was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol. While en route to the police station, Mitchell became lethargic and the officers instead took him to a hospital. There, the officers attempted to read Mitchell his rights as well as a statutorily mandated form regarding Wisconsin’s implied consent law. Mitchell, however, was already too close to unconsciousness to understand, if not unconscious already. That didn’t stop the officers. They ordered hospital workers to withdraw blood from Mitchell without his express consent. The blood test revealed a blood alcohol content of 0.22 percent, almost double the legal limit.

Implied consent laws, which exist in every state, declare that every driver, through merely having a government-issued driver’s license and using state-owned roadways, has impliedly agreed to take a blood-alcohol test if arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence.

Mitchell was charged with a DUI (or OWI – operating while intoxicated – as it’s called in Wisconsin). He moved to suppress the results arguing that the officers did not have a warrant and that he did he did not give his express consent. Prosecutors argued that neither a warrant nor express consent were required because of the implied consent law. The trial court sided with the prosecutors and Mitchell was convicted.

Mitchell appealed and the court of appeals certified the case to the Supreme Court of Wisconsin on the issue of “whether the warrantless blood draw of an unconscious motorist pursuant to Wisconsin’s implied consent law…violates the Fourth Amendment.” The Supreme Court of Wisconsin accepted the certification and upheld Mitchell’s conviction. Earlier this year, however, the United States Supreme Court decided to take on the case.

It couldn’t come at better time either. State court stances on the issue have been all over the place.

Some states have struck down laws that allow prosecution of someone who refuses a blood alcohol test in violation of the implied consent law. Some states have held that warrantless, consentless searches are unconstitutional and, therefore, the evidence obtained by the search is inadmissible against the driver at a DUI trial. Others, like Wisconsin, have held that the Constitution and the Fourth Amendment don’t matter as long as implied consent laws allow law enforcement to search DUI suspects carte blanche.

Let’s take this step by step. The officers in Mitchell’s case do not need a warrant if Mitchell does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the place that law enforcement is searching. We’re not talking about Mitchell’s garage. We’re not talking about his car. We’re not even talking about his home. We’re talking about the thing that we as humans consider to be the most private; our body. I’ll even take it a step further and say that we’re talking about a search of the contents of someone’s blood. You damn well better believe that we have a reasonable expectation of privacy in our bodies and our blood.

Since Mitchell had a reasonable expectation of privacy, the Constitution requires that the officers either get a warrant or get Mitchell’s consent. They did not have a warrant nor did Mitchell give consent because he was, for all intents and purposes, unconscious. Yet, they searched and found what they were looking for.

Wisconsin’s Supreme Court, in allowing Mitchell’s blood and blood alcohol content to be used against him in a criminal case, has essentially said that unconscious drivers can give consent, and have already done so.

How? Because the state legislature has subjectively and in contradiction to the Constitution of the United States created a law that gives the government the right to search without a warrant or consent.

The Founding Fathers were right to be wary of the government, clearly. Let’s just hope that the United States Supreme Court decides Mitchell’s issue bearing in mind what the Founding Fathers had intended and what they wrote in the Constitution.