Supreme Court to Decide if Cops Can Draw Blood from Unconscious Driver

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2019

The United States Supreme Court has agreed to hear and decide a case that challenges a Wisconsin law that allows law enforcement to withdraw blood from an unconscious driver that they suspect was driving under the influence.

The case stems from the 2013 arrest of Gerald Mitchell in Sheboygan County, Wisconsin. After receiving reports that the driver of a gray van may have been intoxicated, officer Alex Jaeger pulled Mitchell over. A pre-arrest breathalyzer revealed that Mitchell had a blood alcohol content of 0.24 percent, three times the legal limit. Officer Jaeger then arrested Mitchell and drove him to a hospital to withdraw a blood sample.

By the time Mitchell and officer Jaeger had arrived at the hospital, Mitchell had lost consciousness and could not be woken. While at the hospital, Mitchell appeared to be too intoxicated to answer questions from a blood-withdrawal consent form. Notwithstanding his unconscious state, blood was taken from Mitchell without a warrant and without his expressed consent.

The blood test revealed that Mitchell’s blood alcohol content was 0.22 percent.

At trial, Mitchell challenged the results arguing that the warrantless blood withdrawal amounted to an unreasonable search and seizure in violation of the 4th Amendment. Mitchell’s suppression motion, however, was denied and the jury convicted him of driving under the influence.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court took up the case to address whether implied consent under “implied consent laws” (laws that require a person to submit to a breath or a blood test if they are legally allowed to drive and if law enforcement has probable cause to believe a person is driving under the influence) is constitutionally sufficient to allow a blood withdraw without expressed consent while a driver is unconscious.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court held that, by virtue of Mitchell’s mere possession of a driver’s license, Mitchell had already impliedly provided consent to allow law enforcement to withdraw blood if law enforcement had the probable cause to arrest him on suspicion of driving under the influence. To boot, the court concluded that officer Jaeger had the probable cause to arrest Mitchell on suspicion of driving under the influence, and therefore law enforcement could withdraw blood from Mitchell while he was unconscious.

In its opinion, the court stated, “…we conclude that consent given by drivers whose conduct falls within the parameters of [Wisconsin’s Implied Consent law], is constitutionally sufficient consent to withstand Fourth Amendment scrutiny…” Furthermore, the court concluded that Mitchell, having consumed alcohol to the point of unconsciousness, “…forfeited all opportunity, including the statutory opportunity…to withdraw his consent previously given; and therefore, [Wisconsin’s Implied Consent law] applied, which under the totality of circumstances reasonably permitted drawing Mitchell’s blood. Accordingly, we affirm Mitchell’s convictions.”

The United States Supreme Court is set to hear Mitchell’s case and it could be decided by late June of this year.

In 2016, the United States Supreme Court ruled that it was lawful for states to impose penalties for drunk driving suspects who refused to take a breath test under the state’s Implied Consent law. However, the Court went on to conclude that while their “prior opinions have referred approvingly to the general concept of implied consent laws,” that “there must be a limit to the consequences to which motorists may be deemed to have consented to only those conditions that are ‘reasonable’ in that they have a ‘nexus’ to the privilege of driving.” Thus, Implied Consent laws that punish people who refuse a blood test are too intrusive and, therefore, unconstitutional.

“[If] criminal penalties for refusal are unlawful because they too heavily burden the exercise of the Fourth Amendment right to refuse a blood test, can it really be that the state can outright abolish the very same right?” Mitchell’s attorneys asked.

Mitchell’s attorney’s question is a valid and one that I hope the Court concludes the answer is “no.”

 

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Struggles of Finding a Legal Limit and Test for Marijuana

Thursday, January 10th, 2019

During this past New Year’s holiday, the Los Angeles Police Department utilized a new portable oral test that is able to check for the presence of marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamines, and other drugs in a person’s system. In their attempt to start aggressively enforcing impaired driving laws, they decided to use this test at New Years’ checkpoints even though the test had only been used about 50 times prior. Prosecutors hope that this eight-minute oral fluids test will eventually become an effective indicator of impairment of drugs, though they have yet to use any results from these tests as evidence in their cases.

Although this test does have the capability of checking for the presence of THC, which is the component most identified with the use of marijuana and which causes the psychoactive effects of marijuana, it does not test for impairment from THC. However, since the legalization of recreational marijuana in several states, experts have struggled to determine an appropriate level of use that would consistently label a person to be “impaired.”

It is undoubtedly important for law makers to be presented with research that helps to determine at what level of THC presence that will cause a person’s impairment. Without this, the current legal terminology of “under the influence” is extremely subjective. Unlike the research with alcohol that determined that there is a strong correlation between impairment and blood alcohol levels higher than 0.08, the research with THC levels are still inconclusive. Both neuroscientists and pharmacologists are having difficulties determining to what extent the drug can impair a person’s ability to drive as well as an appropriate way to measure it. Private companies are currently working on a breathalyzer to test for impairment similar to that used in alcohol related cases, however, the results are still not as definitive as the tests used to determine impairment of alcohol.

In the interim, the Legislature’s Special Commission on Operating Under the Influence and Impaired Driving is recommending mandatory drug testing for stoned drivers under the threat of license suspension. Law enforcement insists that this is the best way to keep stoned drivers off the road.

The threat of losing one’s license may be an effective way to keep stoned drivers off the streets, but at this point in time, it also comes with a multitude of issues, including those that make the tests unconstitutional. For one, it is still unconstitutional to force a blood draw or saliva test without a warrant.

An additional issue is that unlike alcohol that metabolizes fairly quickly and at a measurable rate, THC can last in one’s body for days, even weeks. The “recommended” tests may undoubtedly accurately measure the amount of THC in the body, but there is still no measurement for impairment. ACLU Field Director Matt Allen, who is a member of the special commission stated, “We want to ensure that if motorists are faced with penalties such as losing their license for not taking a drug test that that test is scientifically proven to measure impairment.” However, he was the lone “no” vote on the recommendation.

The scientific community is undoubtedly working on the answer. Hopefully sooner rather than later, the public will be presented with a fairly accurate level of what impairment under the influence of marijuana means. Without it, it is not only law enforcement who is at a loss for efficiently assessing impairment, but all responsible users who lack a point of reference of this newly legal drug to make sure that they are not inadvertently putting the public in danger. Until then, we cannot arbitrarily punish people who have THC in their system, but are not impaired by it.

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Utah Now has the Lowest BAC Limit in the Country

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2019

In 2016 Utah passed a law which would lower its blood alcohol content limit from 0.08 percent to 0.05 percent, making it the toughest DUI law in the country in terms of a BAC limit. Well, as of January 1st, 2019, Utah’s new law took effect.

Prior to Utah’s change, all states had the same blood alcohol content limit of 0.08 percent. However, states differed with what punishments a DUI carries.

Although the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that all states lower their blood alcohol content limits from 0.08 percent to 0.05 percent, only Utah has done so. The National Transportation Safety Board based its recommendation on studies suggesting that impairment begins when the blood alcohol content reaches 0.04 percent.

Utah will now have the task of transitioning into enforcing the new limit.

“We’ve put together a task force on how we are going to usher this in,” Utah Highway Patrol Captain Steve Winward told state lawmakers late last year.

According to Winward, Utah Highway Patrol officers will get four hours of training that will include a review of Utah policy on breathalyzers and other indicators of intoxication. Other police agencies as well as prosecutors from the state will also receive training.

“We really don’t want to change the way we do business,” Winward told members of the Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee last year. “We want to ensure that we are arresting those that are DUI. We want to educate troopers to focus on impairment and not the number 0.05.”

Leading up to the new year, Utah underwent a public relations campaign to inform the public of the new limit.

“People think that you can only have one drink and you are over the 0.05,” Winward said. “We want to dispel those myths.”

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.

However, 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.

“I have no doubt that proponents of .05 laws are well-intentioned, but good intentions don’t necessarily yield good public policy,” Jackson Shedelbower, The American Beverage Institute spokesman, said in a statement.

Shedelbower added, and I agree, that the new law focuses on moderate and responsible drinkers, as opposed to drivers with far higher BAC levels who are responsible for the majority of alcohol-related traffic fatalities, according to The Washington Post.

 

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What are the Benefits (and Disadvantages) of a Wet Reckless?

Friday, October 19th, 2018

People very often ask whether it’s possible to get a wet reckless in their DUI case without even knowing what a wet reckless is or what it entails. They do, however, know that it’s something better than a DUI conviction. While they are correct in that it is better than a DUI charge, there are some very important distinctions between a DUI and a wet reckless.

First, it’s important to explain exactly what a wet reckless is.

A prosecutor cannot charge a wet reckless from the outset. It can only be reduced from a DUI charge. If it is offered and the driver accepts, the driver will be pleading guilty or no contest to California Vehicle Code section 23103 pursuant to section 23103.5 which reads, ““A person who drives a vehicle upon a highway in willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property is guilty of reckless driving…If the prosecution agrees to a plea of guilty or nolo contendere to a charge of [reckless driving] in satisfaction of, or as a substitute for, an original charge of a violation of [DUI], the prosecution shall state for the record a factual basis for the satisfaction or substitution, including whether or not there had been consumption of an alcoholic beverage or ingestion or administration of a drug, or both, by the defendant in connection with the offense. The statement shall set forth the facts that show whether or not there was a consumption of an alcohol beverage or the ingestion or administration of a drug by the defendant in connection with the offense.”

In other words, a driver who takes a wet reckless is pleading guilty (or no contest) to reckless driving involving alcohol.

A wet reckless is one of several reductions to a DUI charge that a prosecutor might offer as incentive to get the driver to take a plea deal. Typically, the wet reckless is only offered if there are issues with the prosecutor’s case that might make it difficult for them to win at trial. For example, a wet reckless might be offered when it is determined that the driver’ blood alcohol content is close to the legal limit of 0.08 percent.

In addition to looking better on paper than a DUI conviction, there are a number of other benefits to the wet reckless.

If a person is convicted of a second-time DUI within 10 years, they face a mandatory minimum of 96 hours in jail. If a person is convicted of a third-time DUI within 10 years, they face a mandatory minimum of 120 days in jail. However, if a person is convicted of only a wet reckless when they’ve suffered prior DUI convictions within a 10-year period, there is no mandatory minimum jail sentence. For example, if a person is convicted of a DUI in 2010 and then a wet reckless conviction in 2018, there is no mandatory minimum jail for the wet reckless.

On the other hand, if a person is convicted of a wet reckless and then suffers a DUI within 10 years of the wet reckless conviction, the wet reckless will be treated as though it was a DUI prior. For example, a person is convicted of a wet reckless in 2010 and then suffers a DUI conviction in 2018, they are facing are facing a mandatory minimum of 96 hours in jail.

Other possible advantages of the wet reckless include a shorter probationary period, lower fines and fees, and a shorter DUI program. I say possible because it depends on what the prosecutor offers as a sentence to the wet reckless reduction.

Lastly, a wet reckless conviction does not trigger the 6-month suspension with the DMV. The license will still be suspended, however, if the driver loses the DMV’s administrative per se action.

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Electric Scooter DUI

Thursday, September 27th, 2018

I’m sure you’ve seen them around town. First it was the rentable bicycles on sidewalks throughout Southern California. Now it’s electric scooters as an alternative to walking around town for pedestrians in urban areas like downtown Los Angeles or my neck of the woods, Long Beach.

How do they work? Well, like many things today, there’s an app for it. Download the app onto your smartphone for one the scooter companies that offer their services in your area; Bird, Lime, Skip, Scoot, or Spin. Once downloaded, you can access a map that tells you where the nearest scooter is. Find the nearest scooter, enter your credit card number into the app, and scan the bar code on the scooter with your smartphone to unlock the scooter. Ride.

This week, Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer said that his office secured the conviction of Nicholas Kauffroath, 28, for driving a rentable scooter under the influence.

Kauffroath was riding a rentable Bird scooter in West Los Angeles when he collided with a pedestrian and scooted away without rendering help or providing information.

Law enforcement found Kauffroath at a nearby apartment building where they were able to test his blood alcohol content, which registered at 0.279 percent; more than three times the legal limit.

Kauffroath subsequently pleaded no contest to one count of misdemeanor operating a motorized under the influence and one count of misdemeanor hit and run. He was sentenced to three years of informal probation, a $550 fine, a three-month DUI program, and was ordered to stay off scooters while drinking.

“Drinking while operating a vehicle, a bike – or a scooter – is not only illegal, but can lead to serious injury or worse,” Feuer said in a statement. “This conviction demonstrates our office’s continued effort to enforce our drunk driving laws and make our streets and sidewalks safer.”

While the Los Angeles City Attorney’s office treated Kauffroath’s case as though it was a standard DUI with a vehicle based on the sentence he received, the law regarding DUI’s on scooters is not necessarily the same as a DUI with a vehicle.

California Vehicle Code section 21221 states in pertinent part, “Every person operating a motorized scooter upon a highway…is subject to all…provisions concerning driving under the influence of alcoholic beverages or drugs.” Under this section, it seems as though Kauffroath’s sentence was not wholly inconsistent with vehicle DUI laws regarding punishment.

However, section 21221.5 states in pertinent part, “[I]t is unlawful for any person to operate a motorized scooter upon a highway while under the influence of an alcoholic beverage or any drug, or under the combined influence of an alcoholic beverage and any drug…A conviction of a violation of this section shall be punishable by a fine of not more than two hundred and fifty dollars ($250).”

The conundrum here is that in the latter section, the penalty for a DUI on a scooter cannot, under the law, be more than $250. This necessarily means that a DUI on an electric scooter cannot be charged as anything more than an infraction with a penalty of nothing more than the $250 fine.

Of course, I don’t know exactly what discussions and/or negotiations occurred between Kauffroath’s defense attorney and the City Attorney’s office regarding his plea deal. I can say that I recently had one of these cases, which was originally charged as a misdemeanor. If convicted as a misdemeanor, my client was looking at three to five years of probation, an 18-month DUI course, fines and fees, and a probation violation for a previous DUI conviction, which could have very well led to jail time. However, after arguing that the language of the law only allowed for a fine of no more than a $250 fine, the case was dropped to an infraction with that $250 fine.

It should be noted that, before scooter renters are allowed to rent and ride the scooters, they are required to confirm that they will not ride while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

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