Category Archives: DUI Case

Murder Charge Dropped for DUI Boater

On July 5th of this year, Juan Francisco Moreno Herrera, 43 of Salida, California, was arrested on suspicion of murder after a collision between Herrera’s boat and a jet ski carrying a couple of teenagers. It was alleged that Herrera was operating his boat under the influence and, as a result, collided Vanessa Zamora, 14, of Watsonville, California, killing her and causing injuries to her 15-year-old cousin. Prosecutors also charged Herrera with two felony counts of driving a boat under the influence of alcohol.

Initially, according to prosecutors, Herrera caused the injuries to the girls because he was driving “his boat around in circles and did not attempt” to help either injured girl in the water following the collision.  

Under California Law, a DUI resulting in death will be charged as manslaughter if the driver has not suffered any prior DUI-related convictions. If, however, the driver has suffered a prior DUI-related conviction, they will likely be charged with second degree murder under California’s “Watson Murder Rule.” Under Watson, the California Supreme allowed murder to be charged in a subsequent DUI resulting in death because the driver was made aware of the dangers of drunk driving after having been sentenced on the prior DUI. It is almost as if the court is saying, “We warned you, you did it anyways, and now look at what happened.”

Herrera had been convicted of a DUI in the past, which allowed prosecutors to charge murder. As a result, Herrera had been in jail since his arrest, unable to afford the $2 million bail bond.

Kirk McAllister, Herrera’s attorney, however, believed the allegations to be false and his law firm conducted its own investigation into the collision.

Following McAllister’s investigation, it was learned that the girls had, in fact, collided into Herrera, not the other way around. What’s more, Herrera did, in fact, jump into the water to help Vanessa’s cousin stay afloat.

McAllister’s findings directly contradicted an affidavit filed by the Sheriff’s department alleging that “two independent witnesses” said that Herrera was driving his boat in circles and did not render aid. The affidavit, however, failed to identify the witnesses, and the sheriff’s department has refused to answer questions about the accuracy of the affidavit.

“What our investigation showed was that in fact they ran into him. In boating terms, he had the right of way. They hit him on the port side, or the left side. … He did the right thing, he powered down (the boat),” said McAllister to the Modesto Bee. “He had a terrible choice to make: One girl was not moving, the other girl was flailing in the water. He chose the one who was flailing because she was showing signs of life, obviously. He kept her afloat until another boat came.”

McAllister’s findings were submitted to the Stanislaus County District Attorney, and last month, the prosecution dropped the felony DUI charges and murder charge. Michael Scheid, the prosecutor assigned to the case, filed an amended complaint against Herrera alleging only misdemeanor boating under the influence charges.

Although the result might not sit well with some readers, the law requires it.

As the District Attorney’s Office itself recognizes, “[i]t is not enough to prove that someone who drank alcohol and was piloting a boat got involved in a collision where someone died,” said John Goold, a spokesman for the District Attorney’s Office.

By law the prosecution must prove every element of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt, and one element to the crime of second degree murder via DUI (or BUI) is that Herrera “did an act or neglected any duty imposed by law…which act or neglect proximately caused the bodily injury.” Based on McAllister’s investigation, Herrera simply did not.

“In this case, ongoing investigation led us to the inescapable conclusion that we could not prove all the elements beyond a reasonable doubt, which led to the filing of the amended complaint,” said Goold rightly so.

Following the amended complaint and dropping of charges, Herrera was released from custody on his own recognizance.

“I was in hell; that’s hell in there,” Herrera said following his release, recalling his time in jail awaiting prosecution. “Just thinking about my family. What was going to become of my kids and myself? Being in there for something that I didn’t do.”

Go ahead and ask Juan Francisco Moreno Herrera whether it’s a good idea to hire a criminal defense attorney when facing California DUI charges. In his case, it was the difference between a misdemeanor DUI and a murder.

Herrera still faces those misdemeanor DUI charges and expected in court this month.

 

 

 

Supreme Court Rules Cops Can Withdraw Blood from an Unconscious Driver

Yes, you read that title correctly. The United States Supreme Court just ruled that police can withdraw blood from an unconscious person suspected of driving under the influence.

Six years ago, police found Gerald Mitchell on a beach in Wisconsin and suspected he was intoxicated after a neighbor reported that he was drunk and suicidal. After being arrested, Mitchell was transported to a hospital. However, by the time he arrived at the hospital, he was unresponsive and law enforcement ordered hospital staff to draw his blood, which revealed a blood alcohol content of 0.22 percent.

Although Mitchell tried to exclude his blood alcohol content from evidence, he was denied and ultimately convicted of driving under the influence. After losing in the Wisconsin state courts, he appealed to the United States Supreme Court arguing that the withdrawal of his blood while he was unconscious without a warrant violated his 4th Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority which included Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Stephen Breyer, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, and himself, concluded that the 4th Amendment, generally, does require a warrant to conduct a search. However, he went on to say that there are exceptions to the warrant requirement including “exigent circumstances” where, as here, a warrantless blood withdraw was necessary to “prevent the imminent destruction of evidence.” Alito continued that the alcohol in a person’s system is “literally disappearing,” which justifies the need to obtain the evidence before taking the time for law enforcement to obtain a warrant.

“Indeed, not only is the link to pressing interests here tighter; the interests themselves are greater: Drivers who are drunk enough to pass out at the wheel or soon afterward pose a much greater risk,” Alito wrote. “It would be perverse if the more wanton behavior were rewarded — if the more harrowing threat were harder to punish.”

Alito also noted that the condition of a driver who is unconscious creates additional burdens on law enforcement since the driver will likely be taken to a hospital rather than the police station where a breath test can be administered.

“It would force them to choose between prioritizing a warrant application, to the detriment of critical health and safety needs, and delaying the warrant application, and thus the BAC test, to the detriment of its evidentiary value and all the compelling interest served by BAC limits,” he wrote. “This is just the kind of scenario for which the exigency rule was born – just the kind of grim dilemma it lives to dissolve.”

Justice Clarence Thomas concurred with the result, but not Alito’s rationale. Thomas maintained that since alcohol automatically leaves a person’s blood within a certain amount of time, police should be able to forcibly withdraw blood whether the driver is conscious or not.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a dissenting opinion that was joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Justice Elena Kagan. Sotomayor argued that Alito’s rationale had missed the point. Sotomayor emphasized that, in this case, law enforcement admitted that there was time to obtain a warrant for Mitchell’s blood, but that they didn’t because of “implied consent.” Implied consent, which exists here in California, is a law that a driver has impliedly agreed to a chemical test by mere virtue of having a driver’s license.

“Wisconsin has not once, in any of its briefing before this Court or the state courts, argued that exigent circumstances were present here,” Sotomayor wrote. “In fact, in the state proceedings, Wisconsin ‘conceded’ that the exigency exception does not justify the warrantless blood draw in this case.”

She went on to say, correctly so in my opinion, that, while “drunk driving poses significant dangers that Wisconsin and other States must be able to curb…the answer is clear: If there is time, get a warrant.”

Justice Neil Gorsuch dissented separately also taking issue with the fact that the case had been decided on grounds that were not the basis for the appeal; whether implied consent laws violate the 4th Amendment.

“We took this case to decide whether Wisconsin drivers impliedly consent to blood alcohol tests thanks to a state statute,” Gorsuch wrote. “That law says that anyone driving in Wisconsin agrees — by the very act of driving — to testing under certain circumstances. But the Court today declines to answer the question presented. Instead, it upholds Wisconsin’s law on an entirely different ground—citing the exigent circumstances doctrine.”

Take a second to ask yourself what place you expect to be more private than any other place, including your home. I expect that the most prevalent answer is “our bodies.” Yet, for the place that we consider to be the most private, law enforcement does not need a warrant to intrude into it as long as we have a driver’s license.

Sound like a loophole for law enforcement? It is!

I am not saying that we shouldn’t be testing the blood of suspected drunk drivers. But the Constitution protects all of us, suspected drunk drivers included. And if the Constitution requires a warrant to search, especially the thing most of hold to be the most private, then law enforcement should have to get one.

It’s not like law enforcement is sending the warrant application by raven! How long (or difficult) would it really take to obtain a warrant? A few minutes if done digitally? Alito and the majority don’t seem to care as they continue to make it easier for law enforcement to violate constitutional rights.

Justice Sotomayor said it best. If there is time, get a warrant.

 

 

 

20,667 DUI Cases in New Jersey Tainted by Bad Breathalyzers Results

It was only a couple of months ago that tens of thousands of breathalyzer results were called into question in Massachusetts, affecting countless DUI cases. It appears New Jersey is dealing with a similar issue now that the state’s highest court ruled that 20,667 breathalyzer results were faulty and therefore inadmissible in the DUI cases where the results were used to secure convictions.

The ruling stems from a case that begun more than two years ago after the attorney for a woman by the name of Eileen Cassidy was notified by the state that the breath results were possibly faulty. At the time the attorney was notified, Cassidy was two weeks into a 180-day sentence on a third-time DUI. Cassidy then filed a lawsuit which led to the appointment of a special master to determine the reliability of the breathalyzer results.

Cassidy’s lawsuit led to the charging of Sergeant Marc W. Dennis with falsely certifying that he had followed proper calibration procedures when calibrating breathalyzers used in DUI stops. The court, in its recent ruling, concluded that the results of the breathalyzers calibrated by Dennis, called Alcotests, were untrustworthy.

“Confidence in the reliability of instruments of technology used as evidence is of paramount importance,” Justice Walter Timpone wrote for the court. “Unfortunately, alleged human failings have cast doubt on the calibration process.”

In addition to determining that the results of the breathalyzers were faulty, the court also vacated Cassidy’s conviction. Unfortunately, Cassidy passed away from cancer in March, never allowing her to see her case vacated by the court.

That, however, didn’t stop her attorney, Michael R. Hobbie, from continuing to fight for her.

While the court vacated Cassidy’s conviction, the New Jersey Supreme Court failed to enunciate in its ruling who could challenge their conviction or exactly how to challenge their conviction.

“With respect to the other 20,667, their cases weren’t vacated,” said Hobbie. “They just going to get notified that the breath test in their case has been deemed inadmissible and they should seek whatever remedy is available to them.”

County prosecutors have already notified thousands of people whose cases may have been affected by the faulty breathalyzer results. The New Jersey Supreme Court, however, has now ordered state authorities to notify everyone whose faulty breath test was used in their case that the results are inadmissible.

“We’ll be issuing guidance shortly for our county prosecutors and municipal prosecutors over how to handle those cases,” said Gurbir Grewal, the New Jersey attorney general.

Although the court declaring the results of the breathalyzers inadmissible is a step in the right direction, ask yourself: How much is it going to cost those people affected by the faulty breathalyzer to legally challenge their conviction (after many, I’m sure, have already spent thousands of dollars to fight the underlying DUI charge in the first place)? As I’ve pointed out many times in previous posts and as I’m sure you’re aware, lawyers are not cheap. Should these people have to bear the burden, financial or otherwise, to remedy something that would not have occurred but for the actions of a corrupt law enforcement officer trying to secure convictions of people who may have been innocent?

Sergeant Dennis was indicted in 2016 and is currently facing criminal charges.