From a prosecutor’s perspective, presenting a successful DUI case is a bit like putting together a puzzle. The prosecutor must bring together different “pieces” of evidence – breath or blood test results, the driver’s performance during field sobriety tests, and statements made by the driver during the investigation – in order to secure a conviction. If someone were to take away some or all of these pieces of evidence, the prosecutor’s job becomes much more difficult – if not impossible.
The way in which a person charged with DUI removes these puzzle pieces from the prosecutor’s case is through a motion to suppress evidence. This is a legal motion that asks the court to keep illegally-obtained evidence from being used in court against the person charged with DUI. Filing, presenting, and successfully using these motions may have a significant impact on the outcome of a California DUI case.
What is the Motion to Suppress Evidence?
Motions to suppress evidence in DUI cases are permitted by California Penal Code 1538.5. This section says, “A defendant may move … to suppress as evidence any tangible or intangible thing obtained as the result of a search or seizure.” “Tangible” things would include evidence such as alcohol containers, photographs, or receipts from bars, and the printouts or results of alcohol tests. “Intangible” evidence would include statements made by the accused driver or the statements of police officers or witnesses.
California Penal Code 1538.5 permits defendants to file motions to suppress where law enforcement officers obtain tangible or intangible evidence through illegal searches and seizures. Examples of illegally-obtained evidence in DUI cases can include:
- Statements from the driver obtained in violation of Miranda
- A driver’s field sobriety tests or evidence found in their car if the officer had no reasonable suspicion to stop the driver’s car
- Breath or blood test results from samples that were illegally collected or obtained following an unlawful arrest
- Searches or seizures based upon a defective warrant
One motion to suppress may cover only one specific piece of evidence, such as the driver’s blood test results. Alternatively, one motion may encompass many items of evidence, like “all evidence obtained after and stemming from” the driver’s illegal arrest.
Motions to suppress evidence are designed to discourage unlawful, unconstitutional, and unconscionable behavior by law enforcement officers during investigations. Thus, a motion to suppress may be successful, for example, even if law enforcement had a valid warrant to search or seize evidence but acted unlawfully in collecting that evidence.
What is the Process to File a Motion to Suppress Evidence in California?
While someone could move to suppress evidence in the midst of their trial when the prosecutor tries to present the evidence to the judge or jury, the better practice is to seek to suppress evidence earlier, ahead of trial. The person accused of DUI will file their motion with the court hearing their case. The motion will need to describe the evidence the person wants suppressed and the factual and legal reasons why such evidence should be suppressed.
Once filed, the motion will be set for a hearing with the court, meaning the judge on the case, the prosecutor, and the defense attorney. At this hearing, if any evidence was obtained without a warrant, it is the prosecutor’s responsibility to show the court that the evidence complained about in the motion was lawfully obtained. The driver who filed the motion to suppress is not required to prove that the evidence was unlawfully obtained, unless a warrant was used to obtain the evidence.
The judge will rule on the motion rather quickly; most times, the judge will announce their ruling at the conclusion of the hearing while both the prosecutor and the accused (and their defense attorney) are still in court. If the motion is granted, the evidence described in the motion will be suppressed, and the prosecutor will not be able to discuss or introduce the suppressed evidence at any future hearing or at trial
How can a Motion to Suppress Lead to Acquittal?
What happens next depends on how important the suppressed evidence is to the prosecutor’s case. A suppressed incriminating statement (a driver’s statement that they “drank six beers about an hour ago”) or suppressed alcohol test results, may make it impossible for the prosecutor to prove the driver was driving while impaired. As a result, the prosecutor may need to change the DUI charge to a less serious offense or dismiss the DUI charge altogether. Remember that puzzle that the prosecutor is trying to put together? It’s going to be that much more difficult to put the puzzle together while missing such big pieces.
What Happens if the Court Denies a Motion to Suppress?
If a person’s motion to suppress evidence is denied, then that means that the prosecutor can discuss and admit the evidence in question. While the person may request the court reconsider their motion to suppress, the court will not likely change its mind absent new, binding law or significant and newly-discovered facts.
If the person is eventually convicted of DUI, they may appeal their conviction to an appellate court. There, they can argue that the trial court was incorrect in denying the motion to suppress. If the trial court should have granted the motion and suppressed the evidence, the appellate court may send the case back to the trial court with appropriate instructions.
Some Final Thoughts
As can be seen, a motion to suppress evidence can be a powerful tool in defending oneself against DUI charges in California. Knowing what evidence should be suppressed in a DUI case takes legal knowledge and experience. While a driver with no legal background could learn how to write and file a motion to suppress evidence, they would likely fail to identify evidence that could be suppressed or would miss legal precedents that would help their case. Bottom line: An experienced California DUI lawyer can help drivers facing charges protect themselves and their rights from overzealous police officers and prosecutors.