What Happens When a Person Under the Age of 21 Gets a DUI?

Friday, May 25th, 2018

I am currently in the midst of a California DUI case where my client was under the age of 21 at the time of their arrest. At the beginning of their case, my client asked me what could happen to him. Unfortunately, it’s a common question as many people who are not legally allowed to drink are caught driving with alcohol in their systems.

As most of us know, the age at which someone is legally allowed to have alcohol is 21-years-old. Although the age of majority is 18, for purposes of this article, I’ll refer to a person under the age of 21 as a “minor.”

Under California Vehicle Code section 23136, otherwise known as California’s “Zero Tolerance” law, it is illegal for a minor to drive with a blood alcohol content of 0.01 percent or more in their system. It does not matter whether the alcohol in the minor’s system came from an alcoholic beverage or some other source like medicine. Nor does it matter whether the minor was “under the influence.” The minor cannot have any alcohol in their system while driving. Fortunately, however, a violation of Vehicle Code 23136 is non-criminal and only results in a one-year suspension of driving privileges through the California Department of Motor Vehicles.

Although not a criminal matter, a minor facing a suspension under California Vehicle Code section 23136 may still want to hire an attorney to fight the DMV suspension. In the event that a suspension cannot be avoided, the attorney can assist the minor obtain a “restricted license” to allow them to go to and from essential locations such as work, school, and the doctor’s office.

If, however, a minor is caught driving with a blood alcohol content of 0.05 percent or higher, they can be charged with an infraction under Vehicle Code section 23140. The penalty if someone is convicted of a violation of section 23140 is a one-year suspension of driving privileges, a fine of $100, and, if the person is over the age of 18, a mandatory alcohol education program of three months of more.

In addition to fighting the license suspension, as was the case with a violation of California’s Zero Tolerance law, a lawyer can help the minor fight the infraction under section 23140 using the same arguments commonly used in an adult DUI case.

If the minor is either under the influence of alcohol or caught driving with a 0.08 percent blood alcohol content or more in their system, a prosecutor can charge the minor with the standard DUI charges under California Vehicle Code sections 23152(a) and 23152(b) – misdemeanor driving under the influence and misdemeanor driving with a BAC of 0.08 percent, respectively.

A person, including a minor, is under the influence of alcohol if their physical or mental abilities are impaired to such a degree that they no longer have the ability to drive with the caution characteristics of a sober person of ordinary prudence under the same or similar circumstances.

In addition to being charged with driving while under the influence, a minor can also be charged with driving with a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent or more.

The penalties for either standard DUI offenses under sections 23152(a) or 23152(b) include a criminal misdemeanor conviction (which remains on a person’s criminal record), suspension of driving privileges, three to five years of summary (informal) probation, a fine between $390 and $1,000, an alcohol education program of three, six, or nine months, up to six months in jail. The penalties can also include non-mandatory conditions such as a Mothers Against Drunk Driving Victim Impact Panel, a hospital and morgue program, or AA meetings.

It shouldn’t take me to tell you that if anyone, including a minor, is charged with the standard DUI offenses under Vehicle Codes 23152(a) and 23152(b), they should seek the assistance of a skilled California DUI attorney. There is too much as stake not to.

Share

Bartender Charged for Over-Serving Customer who Later Killed Someone While Driving Drunk

Thursday, May 17th, 2018

Houston police yesterday arrested Natalia Ortiz at El Muelle Seafood restaurant where she works as a bartender. Almost exactly two years ago, one of Ortiz’s customers left the restaurant under the influence of alcohol and crashed into another vehicle killing one of the occupants.

You might be asking why Ortiz is being arrested and charged for something her customer did. Well, it was later determined that Ortiz served the patron, Edin Palacios, a whopping eleven beers that night before he got behind the wheel.

After Palacios left the restaurant, a Houston police officer attempted to pull him over. Palacios attempted to flee from the officer, ran a red light, and collided with a Dodge Charger. 18-year-old Jocelynn Valero, an occupant of the Dodge Charger was killed on the scene. The other occupant survived, but suffered a broken pelvis, a lacerated liver, and other significant injuries. Valero and the other occupant, her date, we’re driving home from their high school prom.

Prosecutors later determined that Palacios’s blood alcohol content was 0.18 percent.

According to Ortiz’s charging documents, a review of the restaurant’s surveillance video showed Palacios was “obviously intoxicated,” and who “was observed having difficulty in balance and coordination, dropping items from his hand…[and] nearly stumbles while walking.”

The documents went on to say, “This behavior was exhibited in front of [Ortiz] as she knowingly and intentionally continued to serve and deliver beer to the intoxicated subject.”

In 2016, Houston saw 89 fatal DUI crashes, the most in the state of Texas according to the Texas Department of Public Safety. Valero’s death was one of 3,776 DUI-related fatalities in the state of Texas as a whole that year.

As a result of these unfortunate statistics, local prosecutors stepped up efforts to enforce laws prohibiting the over-serving of alcohol to obviously intoxicated bar and restaurant patrons.

“We’re not going after servers or bars that are conducting business legally, we’re going after people whose actions are criminal and negligent,” said Sean Teare, the prosecutor in charge of the Harris County District Attorney’s Vehicular Crimes Division. “When those actions result in the tragedies every day that we deal with on these roads, we’re going to come after them.”

Palacios was charged and convicted of felony murder. He was sentenced to 32 years in prison. Ortiz, on the other hand, has been charged with serving a drunk, a misdemeanor. We’ll be keeping our eyes on how her case plays out.

California has a law similar that which allowed the prosecutors in Ortiz’s case to charge her for over-serving Palacios.

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.”

Share

The California DUI-Triggered License Suspension

Friday, April 13th, 2018

Without a doubt, one of the most confusing aspects of a California DUI case is how the DUI arrest and conviction affects a person’s driving privileges. When does it take effect? How long does it last? Am I eligible for a restricted license? What complicates matters further is that whenever a person is arrested for a DUI, there is the possibility of two separate license suspensions.

To help understand the suspension process, it makes sense to discuss it chronologically.

When a person is arrested in California on suspicion of a first-time DUI, the arresting officer usually takes their license. In return, the officer provides the driver with a “pink slip.” The pink slip is a temporary license which allows the person to drive temporarily.

When the officer gives the pink slip to the driver, the officer should also advise the driver that they have only 10 days to contact the DMV to request a hearing and request a “stay” of the suspension pending the outcome of the hearing. If the hearing is not requested, the driver’s license will automatically be suspended for four months through the DMV’s “administrative per se” action after 10 days.

If the hearing is requested, the DMV will set the hearing date anywhere from a month two several months from the date of arrest. Assuming that the stay was also requested, the driver will be able to drive pending the outcome of the hearing.

The purpose of the DMV hearing is to determine 1.) whether the officer had reasonable cause to believe the driver was driving under the influence, 2.) whether the driver was lawfully arrested, and 3.) whether the driver had a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent or higher.

Prior to the hearing date, the DMV will send the driver or their attorney a packet of information which contains the evidence that the DMV is using to make the determinations in the previous paragraph. As if disproving those determinations wasn’t difficult enough, even with a lawyer to argue on the driver’s behalf at the hearing, the hearings are unfairly one-sided against the driver.

Since the DMV is not a court, the standard of proof needed to suspend a person’s license is much lower than what is needed to convict a person of a crime in criminal court. A prosecutor in a criminal case must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the driver was either 0.08 percent blood alcohol content or “under the influence.” A DMV hearing officer must only prove more likely than not that the driver was either a 0.08 percent blood alcohol content or that they refused the chemical test.

The DMV hearing officer, who is a DMV employee, runs the hearing. The hearing officer can object to the driver’s evidence and rule on his or her own objection. Finally, the hearing officer decides if he or she wins. And they almost always do. In this sense, the hearing officer acts as both the prosecutor and the judge.

Hearsay statements, which are generally excluded from court cases because the person making the statement cannot be cross examined, are admissible in DMV hearings. Most of the time, arresting officers are absent from DMV hearings. If a driver wishes to cross examine the arresting officer who wrote the report, he or she must subpoena the officer at his own cost. This includes paying for the officer’s salary for the time that they attend the hearing.

Lastly, the DMV hearing officer, who, like a judge, determines the outcome of the DMV hearing is merely a DMV employee with no background in law. In fact, according to the DMV’s employment eligibility requirements, a hearing officer does not even need to have a college degree.

Suffice it to say, a majority of DMV hearings are lost, thus triggering the four-month “APS” suspension.

If, however, the DMV hearing is won, the driver will save themselves from the four-month “APS” suspension, but they will still face a court-triggered suspension if they are convicted of a DUI in the criminal action against them.

You can read any number of my previous posts on the inner workings of DUI criminal court case. This post is about the license suspension and how the criminal DUI case affects driving privileges. As such I will not go into the details of the DUI criminal case.

If, after all is said and done in the DUI criminal case, the driver pleads guilty (or no contest) or is convicted after trial, the court will notify the DMV that the driver has been convicted of the DUI. When the DMV becomes aware of the DUI conviction, a six-month “mandatory action” suspension will become effective. The driver, however, will get credit against the six-month mandatory action suspension for any time spent on the four-month APS suspension.

For example, a driver is arrested in January and loses the DMV hearing in February. The driver serves the four-month suspension and gets their license back in June. Then in July, the driver is convicted of a DUI, thus triggering the six-month suspension. Since the driver already served the four-month suspension, they will only need to serve another two months.

As you can see, the license suspension is no simple process, and I haven’t even begun to discuss cases that are not your run-of-the-mill first-time DUI cases.

Without going into too much detail, here are some basics for other, slightly more complicated scenarios:

A second-time DUI carries a one-year APS suspension and the mandatory action suspension is two years. A third-time DUI carries a one-year APS suspension and a three-year mandatory action suspension. A driver who refuses the mandatory chemical test following a DUI arrest faces a one-year APS suspension and the driver can face additional criminal penalties.

Share

Lung Condition Causes Woman to Fail Breathalyzer

Thursday, April 5th, 2018

According to the American Lung Association, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, commonly referred to as COPD, which includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema, is a chronic lung disease that makes it difficult to breathe. And according to the World Health Organization, COPD affects 65 million people worldwide. COPD, however, affected one Canadian woman in an unexpected way; it caused her to fail a breathalyzer.

Connie McLean, a 64-year-old woman from New Brunswick, Canada, who suffers from COPD, said that the condition can make everyday living difficult.

“When I’m carrying in wood, I can only carry in a couple sticks at a time and I usually have to stop and get some air before I go and get some more,” she said last week. “And shoveling is even worse.”

Early last month, McLean was pulled over by local law enforcement. The officer asked her if she had been drinking. McLean responded that she had a beer that afternoon. At that point, the officer produced a breathalyzer to try and determine her blood alcohol content.

As a result of the COPD, McLean could not produce a strong enough of a breath sample to provide a breathalyzer reading.

“I tried several times, but due to COPD and mucous in my airway I wasn’t successful,” she said. “And he just almost hollered, ‘You’re not trying, you’re under arrest and you’re going to jail.’”

McLean was charged with refusing to comply with the breathalyzer test which resulted in her vehicle being impounded for 30 days and her driver’s license being suspended for 90 days.

“It makes perfect sense to us that if you have severe COPD that it would be impossible to exhale for any length of time,” said Henry Roberts of COPD Canada. “I would hope the police would show some compassion to people who have difficulty breathing.”

McLean has a court date next month and intends on fighting the charge.

McLean’s predicament is not an unusual one, even here in the United States. Often, people are unable to provide a sufficient breath test for a number of health-related reasons. Breathalyzers require deep lung air, known as alveolar air, to be able to produce a blood alcohol content reading. If a person does not advise an officer of the health issue that might prevent them from providing alveolar air, the officer may believe that the person is deliberately trying to provide a sufficient breath sample.

California courts have found that an inference can be made that a person is deliberately attempting to avoid providing a sufficient breath sample if the facts permit. If such an inference is made, the court treats it as a refusal.

Fortunately, here in California, a driver is not required to give a breath sample for a roadside breathalyzer, commonly referred to as a “preliminary alcohol screening” test or “PAS” test. Refusing it will not result in additional penalties with either the court or the DMV. In fact, many DUI attorneys like myself recommend politely refusing the PAS test.

Of more importance, however, is the mandatory “chemical test” under California’s “implied consent law.” Under the implied consent law, a driver must submit to a chemical test once they are lawfully arrested on suspicion of a DUI. The chemical test can be either a breath or a blood test. Only for a refusal of the chemical test, not the PAS test, may a driver be punished.

Here in the California, a refusal of a chemical test can result in jail time, a longer DUI program, and/or a longer license suspension.

Let’s hope that reason prevails in the Canadian courts for McLean’s sake.

 

Thanks to my student, David Hong, for sending me this story!

Share

Do BAC Limits Discriminate Against Alcoholics?

Thursday, February 15th, 2018

A Texas man who was convicted of a fourth DUI claimed that blood alcohol content limits discriminate against alcoholics.

Ralph Alfred Friesenhahn of San Antonio was convicted of his fourth DUI in 2016 and was sentenced to four years in prison after he rolled his vehicle outside of San Antonio, Texas. A later blood test revealed that Friesenhahn’s blood alcohol content was 0.29 percent, more than three times the legal limit of 0.08 percent.

Although some states are considering lowering the legal limit to 0.05 percent, all states currently have a limit of 0.08 percent.

At trial, Friesenhahn’s attorney motioned the court to dismiss the indictment against Friesenhahn arguing that the state’s legal limit discriminated against alcoholics. Not surprisingly, the judge denied the request and Friesenhahn was convicted of felony driving while intoxicated, the Texas equivalent to California’s “driving under the influence,” and was sentenced to four years in prison due to his prior convictions.

Friesenhahn’s attorney appealed the conviction, once again arguing that the state’s blood alcohol content limit of 0.08 percent discriminated against alcoholics in violation of the right to equal protection guaranteed under the United States Constitution and Texas Constitution. Specifically, she argued that the legal limit ignored the “protected class of alcoholics,” who have a high tolerance to alcohol, to be prosecuted for DUI charges when there is no indication that the alcohol impaired their ability to safely drive a vehicle even though they might be over the legal limit.

Sammy McCrary, chief of the felony division for the Comal County District Attorney’s Office argued that it’s absurd to suggest that the law treats alcoholics differently.

“You’re not being punished for being an alcoholic. It’s the driving that’s the problem,” McCrary said. “It’s making the decision to get into a 3,000-pound vehicle … after drinking.”

The Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals agreed with McCrary with an opinion issued last week.

In denying that Friesenhahn and other alcoholics fall within a “protected class,” the court said that Texas law “provides two alternative definitions of intoxication. The first involves the loss of the normal use of mental or physical faculties; the second involves an alcohol concentration of at least 0.08…The alternative definitions are presented disjunctively…indicating that only one must be satisfied to establish that a person is legally intoxicated. Further, these alternative definitions apply to all persons charged with an intoxication offense…Thus, the alcohol concentration definition of intoxicated allows for a finding of intoxication based on an alcohol concentration of 0.08 or more without showing the loss of mental or physical faculties – whether the defendant is an alcoholic or not. Therefore, there is no classification in the statute that treats any persons, including [Friesenhahn’s] defined ‘class’ of alcoholics, differently than similarly situated persons: the 0.08 alcohol concentration level applies to all offenders prosecuted for DWI.”

In short, the court said that since the law treats all persons equally, there can be no violation of equal protection.

Let Friesenhahn’s case serve as a reminder that, while you may not be “impaired” when driving your vehicle, as long as you’re over the legal limit of 0.08 percent blood alcohol content, you’re putting yourself at risk of a DUI arrest, charge, and possible conviction.

 

Share