Monthly Archives: April 2019

Wisconsin Looks to Criminalize Drunk Driving

Wisconsin state law makers are continuing the trend of proposing bills that call for more stringent driving under the influence laws.

Under current law in Wisconsin, operating while intoxicated, or “OWI” as it’s called in Wisconsin, is a civil violation with the first offense subject only to a fine of no less than $150 and no more than $300. A second offense will only have increased penalties if the person has committed the OWI within ten years of the first offense or if the OWI offense caused death of great bodily harm to another.

A bi-partisan plan of bills was introduced, with one of the bills pushing to make the first offense a misdemeanor and would call for a fine of up to $500, imprisonment for up to 30 days, or both. This same bill will also subject a second offense to increased penalties regardless of the offense occurring within ten years of the first OWI-related offense.

There is another bill within this plan that calls for a mandatory minimum jail sentence of five years for committing a homicide while driving drunk. Current penalties include imprisonment of up to 25 years if a Class D felony and up to 40 years if a driver is found to have had prior convictions and thus charged with a Class C felony. However, neither one of these penalties have a minimum imprisonment limit.

A public hearing at Wisconsin’s Capitol was held to address several bills, including those mentioned above. The hearing included testimony from families who have lost family and loved ones through the actions of drunk drivers and many of them have called for stricter punishments for under the influence offenders.

In comparison to other states that have already categorized driving under the influence as a criminal offense, this change may seem fairly minor and certainly a long time coming. If you recall one of our earlier posts about states with the most DUIs (States with the Most Drunk Drivers), Wisconsin clocked in at number 4. It is quite possible that part of the reason why their numbers are so high in the survey is that their citizens have less incentive to refrain from getting behind the wheel after a few too many drinks. Republican Representative Jim Ott, who authored the bills, was quoted “I think it would be a deterrent effect. I think if people recognized and were taking drunk driving more seriously in Wisconsin than we have in the past, that it would cause people to not drive drunk and be a first offender.”

According to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation there were 25,734 OWI citations in 2015, 93% of which were found guilty. In theory, categorizing a first offense OWI as a criminal act and processing a drunk driver’s sentence as such should be a deterrent and keep those who are considering the additional drink from climbing behind the driver seat. However, I am fairly certain that there is a significant number of people who didn’t want to deal with civil action and simply plead guilty since the penalty was only a fine. However, if that were to be a criminal mark on your record, people will undoubtedly start to pay a little more attention to the seriousness of the situation. Consequently, criminal defense attorneys can apply their expertise to make sure that the arrests are legitimate before allowing their clients to plead guilty to what is now a criminal action with more serious consequences.

There is also a major question that will need to be addressed should these bills go forward: Is Wisconsin’s court system actually prepared for this change? The bills still have to go through another group of lawmakers before being presented to the floor for a vote, but if they do go through, there are changes to the court system and the entire criminal process that may make things difficult in other ways.

Because even first offenses will be considered criminal, all OWI cases will need to start going through the District Attorney’s office. If there is a lack of sufficient personnel to handle such an increased caseload at the District Attorney’s office, the delays in charges being filed that would result is likely inevitable. Not only that, are the jail systems prepared to handle the increase for if offenders as a result of the new laws?

Time will only tell what happens with the new laws, whether they get passed, and, if so, what effect it will have on deterrence, the court system, and the district attorney’s office.

Should Courts Allow Cops to be “Experts” in Drug Intoxication for DUI Cases?

It is not uncommon for police to be trained in recognizing drug intoxication. But should they be allowed to testify as experts in court about drug intoxication in DUI cases?

At least one judge believes not, and rightfully so.

Timothy B. Callahan, from Cheshire, Massachusetts, was pulled over in May of 2016 after police received a report that he had smoked laced marijuana and was acting violently. Additionally, he was alleged to have been speeding and driving erratically before the stop.

Callahan was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence (operating a motor vehicle under the influence or “OUI” as it’s called in Massachusetts).

While being booked, police called in Officer Brennan Polidoro to observe Callahan.

Polidoro received a drug-recognition certificate in 2014 and has since been considered the only Drug Recognition Expert in the county. As of the summer of 2018, Polidoro had evaluated over 15 people accused of driving under the influence of narcotics.

Following Polidoro’s evaluation of Callahan, Polidoro determined that Callahan was under the influence of drugs and Polidoro’s conclusions were included into the police report.

During Callahan’s criminal case, prosecutors sought to have the court recognize Polidoro as an expert so that he could provide testimony about the effects of drugs on a human and offer an opinion as to whether someone was under the influence of drugs.  

Callahan’s attorney filed a motion seeking to exclude Polidoro’s testimony as an expert.

During the hearing on whether Polidoro should be allowed to testify as an expert, the prosecution offered evidence that Polidoro was trained in drug recognition and that the training was based on three law enforcement studies from 1985, 1986, and 1994. Evidence was also offered that after evaluating 12 individuals during training, Polidoro was determined to be “proficient” by his instructors who formed their opinions as to his proficiency based on the same studies.

Let me get this straight. The prosecution is arguing that an officer should be deemed an “expert” in how chemicals affect the human body if other law enforcement officers think they’re proficient, not physicians or chemists or other medical professionals? “Proficiency” after 12 training evaluations, really? Am I missing something? Does Polidoro have a background in chemistry or medicine?

What’s more, “proficiency” as determined by law enforcement is an accuracy rate of 43% to 49% when people did not have drugs in their system. Really?!?! That means that law enforcement considers being wrong 57% to 51% of the time as “proficient.” With people’s lives at stake, you’d think they’d set their standards a little bit higher.

Fortunately, the court disagreed with the prosecution.

“As law enforcement has embraced these studies as the basis for their trainings, the Court finds that, `proficient,’ as used by law enforcement means a 43% to 49% accuracy rate for identifying those subjects with no drugs in their systems,” said Judge Jennifer Tyne. “The Court does not find this to be reliable, let alone proficient.”

“Based on the evidence presented at this hearing, the Court finds that the body of knowledge, the principles and the methods that the officer was instructed on are not reliable predictors of whether an individual is under the influence of certain narcotics,” Tyne said.

Having denied the prosecution the ability to introduce Polidoro’s testimony about drug recognition and the effects of drugs on humans as an expert, Judge Tyne did, however, say that Polidoro could testify about his observations of Callahan and any statements Callahan might have made after Callahan’s arrest.

Callahan may very well have been under the influence of drugs while driving, but that’s not the point. The court should not allow the testimony of “experts” without a sufficient basis to deem that person an expert. Doing so can lead to wrongful convictions in DUI and any other types of criminal cases.

Should Bars be Allowed to be Sued when they Serve Alcohol to Someone who Later Causes a DUI-Related Accident?

The question has been raised recently several times: Should victims of DUI-related collisions be allowed to sue the bar who served the drunk driver that caused the collision?

Relatives of an entire family that was killed by a drunk driver certainly think so.

Relatives of the Abbas family have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against two Kentucky bars who are accused of over-serving a customer, and against the customer’s estate.

According to the police report, in January of this year, Joey Lee Bailey consumed at least two 22-ounce beers and three double White Russians at the restaurant, Roosters Wings in Georgetown. Bailey then drove to Horseshoes Kentucky Grill & Saloon in Lexington. There he was served at least one beer and four more double White Russians.

After Bailey left the last bar, Lexington police said they received a report of a white pickup truck traveling in the wrong direction on the interstate. Shortly thereafter, a collision was reported.

Bailey had collided with an SUV carrying a family of five who were headed home from a vacation in Florida. Bailey did not survive and unfortunately neither did the occupants of the SUV; 42-year-old Issam Abbas, and Issam’s wife, 38-year-old Rima Abbas, along with their three children, 14-year-old Ali Abbas, 13-year-old Isabella Abbas and 7-year-old Giselle Abbas.

“For the surviving family members, as well as for their many friends left behind, the nightmare and grief caused by that crash will never go away,” said Greg Bubalo, an attorney representing the Abbas family. “By filing the lawsuit, the family hopes to hold those responsible accountable and ensure that this type of tragedy does not occur to another family. This is a second time fatalities have been alleged to have resulted from over-serving alcohol by Horseshoes.” 

According to the coroner, Bailey’s blood alcohol content level was 0.306 percent, more than three times the legal limit in Kentucky (and California) of 0.08 percent.

While I agree with Mr. Bubalo’s first statement, I wholeheartedly disagree with his second.

I’m sorry, but it is not the job of bars and restaurants to babysit customers. It is not their job to make sure they don’t drink and then drive. And it is not their job to monitor whether someone is too intoxicated to drive.

Bailey, an adult, made the decision to have that many drinks and then, after having left the bars, get behind the wheel. What were the bars supposed to have done? Breathalyze Bailey before he left? Were they supposed to take his keys away? Were they supposed to have someone monitor the exit of the parking lot?

Fortunately, thus far, the California legislature feels the same.

Fortunately, California sees it the same.

While other states such as Kentucky may hold a bar liable for injuries caused by a drunk driving customer, in California it is the customer’s willful decision to drink and then drive which is the cause of any subsequent DUI collision. Thus, in California, bars and restaurants are shielded from liability when a customer over drinks, drives away, and causes injury or damage.

California’s “Dram Shop Laws” (California Civil Code section 1714) read as follows:

(b) It is the intent of the Legislature to . . . reinstate the prior judicial interpretation of this section as it relates to proximate cause for injuries incurred as a result of furnishing alcoholic beverages to an intoxicated person, namely that the furnishing of alcoholic beverages is not the proximate cause of injuries resulting from intoxication, but rather the consumption of alcoholic beverages is the proximate cause of injuries inflicted upon another by an intoxicated person.

(c) Except as provided in subdivision (d), no social host who furnishes alcoholic beverages to any person may be held legally accountable for damages suffered by that person, or for injury to the person or property of, or death of, any third person, resulting from the consumption of those beverages.

(d) Nothing in subdivision (c) shall preclude a claim against a parent, guardian, or another adult who knowingly furnishes alcoholic beverages at his or her residence to a person under 21 years of age, in which case, notwithstanding subdivision (b), the furnishing of the alcoholic beverage may be found to be the proximate cause of resulting injuries or death.

As you can see, the laws are different if the customer is under the age of 21. It is the responsibility of bar to ensure that their customers are of legal drinking age before serving them alcohol. People under the age of 21 are legally deemed incapable of making good decisions regarding alcohol use…like the decision not to drive after drinking at a bar.

While California’s law differ from other states with respect to civil liability, like Kentucky, a bar may be held criminally liable if they serve alcohol to an “obviously intoxicated person.”

According to California Business and Professions Code section 25602(a), “Every person who sells, furnishes, gives, or causes to be sold, furnished, or given away, any alcoholic beverage to any habitual or common drunkard or to any obviously intoxicated person is guilty of a misdemeanor.”

Having said that, I’ve been practicing criminal law for 10 year and I’ve never seen California Business and Professions Code section 25602(a) charged. My guess is that it’s difficult to prove that a bar knew that someone was “obviously intoxicated,” as might have been the case with the bars that served Bailey.

Shooting a Gun while Intoxicated Less Dangerous than Driving while Intoxicated?

The New York Legislature last month voted to lower the blood alcohol limit allowed while hunting to match the threshold for the blood alcohol content someone can have while driving.

On March 26th of this year, the New York Assembly voted 147 – 1 to amend the law that previously outlawed hunting in the state with a blood alcohol content of 0.10 percent or higher. The following day, the New York senate voted 56 – 5 to amend the law. Under the amended law, hunters cannot have a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent or higher, matching blood alcohol content limit while driving in most states, including California (Utah just became the first state to lower its blood alcohol content limit to 0.05 percent).

Under the new law, hunting with a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent or more is a misdemeanor and carries a fine of up to $500, up to a year in jail, and a revocation of a person’s hunting license for two years. Additionally, licensed hunters who refuse to submit to a breath or other test for intoxication can also have their licenses revoked.

“These changes were based in part on studies which determined that this level of alcohol in an individual’s bloodstream can result in substantially impaired motor skills, perception and judgment,” Assemblyman Kenneth Zebrowski wrote in his sponsor’s memo. “These are also critical skills used in hunting.”

In California and other states, DUI laws generally include prohibitions against both driving with a per se blood alcohol limit of 0.08 percent or higher (or 0.05 percent or higher in Utah) and driving while under the influence (or some other iteration like “driving while intoxicated” or “operating under the influence”).

The purpose for this is that nobody should be driving while actually under the influence, meaning that they cannot drive like a reasonable and sober person would. And, as Mr. Zebrowski stated, at a 0.08 percent, studies have shown that the motor skills of individuals, albeit very subjectively, are affected to a degree that might impair driving.

Like Zebrowski, lawmakers who approved of New York’s new limit expressly cited the risk of injury and death.

“An individual who is too intoxicated to drive a car or pilot a boat is also unfit to engage in hunting and the increased risk is not only to the hunter, but to everyone else in the field,” Zebrowski, a Rockland County Democrat, wrote. “This bill would ensure a consistent standard for intoxication in state law.”

Sure, it sounds like they’re considering driving with a blood alcohol content limit of 0.08 percent just as dangerous as shooting a gun with a blood alcohol content limit of 0.08 percent or higher.  But are they really?

Let me get this straight. It is illegal to shoot a gun and drive with a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent or higher. Fine. However, it is also illegal to drive a vehicle while “under the influence” regardless of what a person’s blood alcohol content is. Yet, a person can shoot, say a semi-automatic rifle, if they are “under the influence,” but not necessarily above a 0.08 percent.

Let me give an example. Take a person weighing less than a hundred pounds who has never had a sip of alcohol before in their life. If they have a couple of beers, they may not be above a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent, but they’re certainly going to be “drunk” or “under the influence.” New York is telling them, “Sure, go shoot that gun, but don’t you dare drive.”

Really?

It seems to me, and I would hope others would agree, that using any firearms with any alcohol seems patently dangerous, and certainly more dangerous than driving a vehicle. Not that I’m saying it’s safe to drive with alcohol in your system. Neither are safe. But if lawmakers are using a driving under the influence as a measuring standard for how they draft other laws, then it should actually be equal at a minimum, if not more restrictive for more dangerous activities. Or is this just another example of the overzealous vilification of DUI’s?

New York’s new law becomes effective September 1st.