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.

 

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Drunk Drivers Say Personal Breathalyzers Helped them Prevent Driving Drunk Again

Friday, December 1st, 2017

This past August, the Colorado Department of Transportation gave 475 personal smartphone breathalyzers to people who had been convicted of a DUI. In addition to the obvious objective of preventing drunk driving, the Colorado Department of Transportation also wanted to see if, in fact, having the breathalyzer actually helped keep them from driving drunk again.

After recently surveying those people who were given breathalyzers, the Colorado Department of Transportation’s results showed that having a personal breathalyzer helped those people avoid driving drunk. In fact, a whopping 90 percent said that having a breathalyzer helped them avoid driving drunk and 94 percent said that they would recommend a personal breathalyzer to others who regularly drink alcohol.

The Colorado Department of Transportation teamed up with BACtrack, who created the smartphone breathalyzer, during the informal study. The breathalyzer is linked to a smartphone app through Bluetooth. If the user determines that they cannot legally drive, the smartphone app can order them a taxi or Uber.

I’ve written a few times on the benefits of purchasing a personal breathalyzer.

Like those handed out by the Colorado Department of Transportation, people can buy breathalyzers that can either be attached directly to a smartphone or connect to smartphone through Bluetooth and will run buyers between $100 and $150.  

Other, less expensive, breathalyzers can come on keychains and can cost buyers as low as $15. Like many things, quality comes with price and the results of these novelty breathalyzers are questionable at best and decrease in accuracy after time.  

Some breathalyzers are handheld and resemble those commonly associated with the breathalyzers used by law enforcement. Those breathalyzers range widely in terms of price and quality. Some come as low as $50 and some can go as high as a few hundred dollars. Obviously, the less expensive handheld breathalyzers have lower quality, but those more expensive handheld breathalyzers are the ones used by law enforcement because of their accuracy and may even be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Law enforcement grade breathalyzers have an accuracy range of plus or minus 0.002 percent which means that if a person is a 0.08 percent, the breathalyzer results can range between 0.078 percent and 0.082 percent.

I purchased my own personal handheld breathalyzer to experience first-hand what I’ve been writing about. I didn’t break the bank, but I did spend $60 on the lower end of the legitimate handheld breathalyzers. After having a few drinks, I gave it a go. While I don’t know what my actual blood alcohol content was because different readings were provided, I can say that the multiple readings ranged by about 0.03 percent. In other words, using that range, a person could register between a 0.095 percent and 0.65 percent, or between a 0.18 percent and 0.12 percent, or between 0.26 and 0.23 percent. After a few months of use, the breathalyzer stopped working and I need to send it to the manufacturer.

While on the face of it, it might seem as though this range is too large to help drivers know whether they are okay to drive because if a person is actually at a 0.08 percent, the breathalyzer reading can show results as high as 0.095 percent and as low as 0.065 percent. Having said that, if a person knows that a breathalyzer is less than accurate and shows a blood alcohol content of 0.065 percent, they may know that they might actually be at a 0.08 percent and abstain from driving. And bear in mind that this is one of the less accurate handheld breathalyzers.

At a minimum, having a personal breathalyzer might help people bridge the gap between how a person perceives what their intoxication level is and what their blood alcohol content is. And while many breathalyzers might not provide an accurate reading, it might still prevent people from driving merely knowing that they are close to the limit. And knowing a range is certainly better than knowing nothing and making a stupid guess.

 

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DUI on a Horse

Friday, November 10th, 2017

Over the years, I’ve written about DUI’s on a variety of transportation methods, from a Zamboni to a Power Wheels to a canoe. Although I’ve written about a DUI on a horse before, it has been quite a while and is definitely due. Is there any surprise that this story comes from never-dull state of Florida?

A Florida woman rode her horse on a highway drunk, police say. She was charged with a DUI

November 4, 2017, Washington Post — Nothing’s unusual in Florida, a sheriff department spokesman said Friday. But some things like a woman arrested this week for allegedly riding a horse while drunk down a busy highway — are still surprising.

Around 3 p.m. Thursday, a passer-by saw Donna Byrne, 53, on the horse looking confused and possibly in danger and notified officers, according to her arrest affidavit. Sheriff’s officers found Byrne on Combee Road near North Crystal Road in Lakeland, about 35 miles east of Tampa. She smelled of alcohol and had red watery eyes. When she dismounted from the horse, she staggered from side to side.

Byrne had ridden the horse for a 10 to 15-mile stretch from Polk City, said Brian Bruchey, a spokesman for the Polk County Sheriff’s Office.

Byrne is being charged with driving under the influence while operating a vehicle — which in her case was a horse equipped with a saddle and bridle. She is also charged with animal neglect for putting the horse in danger of being injured or killed.

“We haven’t had a horse DUI that I’m aware of. We’ve had incidents of bicycle DUIs and motorcycle DUIs, so this was a different kind of thing.”

Whether an intoxicated person on horseback can be charged with a DUI or DWI varies from state to state.

In 1993, an appellate court in California ruled in People vs. Fong that people riding animals on the highway are subject to the same rules as the drivers of automobiles, meaning people must ride their animals at a reasonably safe speed and avoid reckless behavior.

The issue was a hot topic in Montana in 2011, when the state’s department of transportation aired an advertisement featuring a horse picking up its owner after a night of drinking at the bar. In Montana, horseback riders can’t be arrested for driving under the influence, because state law’s criteria for a vehicle in a DUI excludes devices moved by “animal power.”

Several criminal defense lawyers in Florida interviewed by The Post are skeptical of whether the DUI charge will hold up in Florida court. Thomas Grajek, a Tampa attorney who specializes in DUI cases, said he thinks Byrne can’t be charged with a DUI because Florida law states that people riding animals on roadways or shoulders are treated as pedestrians, and are not subject to the same rules as automobile drivers. Grajek said that, if anything, someone riding a horse drunk might be charged with disorderly conduct, similarly to a publicly intoxicated pedestrian.

Officers arrested Byrne after conducting a sobriety test, during which Byrne registered blood-alcohol levels of .157 and .161, twice the state’s legal limit of .08. The horse was taken to the Polk County Sheriff’s Animal Control livestock facility, officers said.

“The road she was stopped on was a very busy road,” Bruchey said. “Of course, if somebody hit the horse, then that person would be in danger. And (Byrne) was a danger to herself.”

The Polk County State Attorney’s office could not be immediately reached for comment. Bruchey, the sheriff’s department spokesman, said the officer who arrested Byrne thought he had sufficient probable cause to consider the horse a vehicle.

“I can tell you it’s going to be interesting if (the DUI charge) goes through,” Bruchey said. “The way sheriffs look at it, the woman put a saddle and bridle on this horse and was riding it to get from point A to point B. For all intents and purposes, we look at that as a vehicle.”

Byrne’s criminal history includes five felony and ten misdemeanor charges, consisting of cruelty to animals, drug possession, probation violation and criminal traffic, officers said. She could not be reached for comment.

While there may be questions as to whether Byrne will actually be prosecuted and convicted under Florida law, as the article stated, California fully recognizes DUI on a horse. In fact, California Vehicle Code section 21050 states, “Every person riding or driving an animal upon a highway…is subject to all of the duties applicable to the driver of a vehicle…”

I’ll leave you with a poem written by a dissenting Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice in a Pennsylvania case which held that a horse is not a vehicle for purposes of driving under the influence:

“A horse is a horse, of course, of course, but the Vehicle Code does not divorce its application from, perforce, a steed as my colleagues said. ‘It’s not vague’, I’ll say until I’m hoarse, and whether a car, a truck or hors, this law applies with equal force, and I’d reverse instead.”

 

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Prosecutors Decline to Prosecute Long Beach Councilwoman for DUI

Thursday, October 26th, 2017

This story is disturbing to me not just because it occurred in my hometown of Long Beach, but because it exemplifies the partiality with which prosecutors and police treat DUI’s of those whom they have a working relationship with versus everyday citizens.

Prosecutors have decided not to prosecute Long Beach Councilwoman, Jeannine Pearce with domestic violence nor driving under the influence in a June 3rd incident involving her former chief of staff, Devin Cotter.

District attorney declines to charge Long Beach Councilwoman with drunk driving, domestic violence

October 26, 2017, Los Angeles Times – Prosecutors have decided not to charge Long Beach Councilwoman Jeannine Pearce with domestic violence or driving under the influence in connection with a June clash with her former chief of staff.

But a district attorney’s memo detailing the decision also raises questions about the Long Beach Police Department’s response to the June 3 incident involving the councilwoman and Devin Cotter.

In its initial statement, the Police Department said it received a call for assistance from the California Highway Patrol about a possible drunk driving incident on the shoulder of the 710 Freeway in Long Beach at 2:40 a.m.

The city’s officers smelled alcohol on Pearce, who admitted to drinking that night, according to the district attorney’s memo. A field sobriety test conducted about 4 a.m. showed she was mildly impaired.

But the memo said a test of the councilwoman’s blood alcohol level was not conducted until 4:20 a.m., nearly two hours after the CHP called. At that point, the test showed Pearce had a blood alcohol level of 0.06%, under the legal limit of 0.08%, the memo said.

The testing device used on Pearce was unreliable, the prosecutor’s memo said. A department toxicologist had recommended it not be used a month before the incident. Additional tests were not performed, according to the district attorney’s memo.

A police spokesman said in a statement that officers initially investigated whether domestic violence had occurred when they arrived, interviewing Cotter and Pearce before realizing that the councilwoman had been drinking. At that point, the officers called for a colleague who is a certified drug recognition expert to investigate, Sgt. Brad Johnson said in the statement.

He said the testing device had been “tagged to be replaced but was not removed from its storage cabinet. The officer who retrieved the device did not realize … and unfortunately used it during the DUI investigation.”

Police at the scene saw Cotter with swelling, redness and a cut to his head and cuts to his hand, according to the district attorney’s memo. Pearce at one point had shoved Cotter, causing him to fall to the ground, the memo said.

Prosecutors ultimately decided that Pearce, who was first elected to the City Council in 2016, could argue she was defending herself when she shoved Cotter.

Pearce said she could not immediately comment. Cotter could not be reached for comment.

 

I can tell you that, had this been an average Joe Schmoe driver, it would not have ended up in a refusal to file DUI or domestic violence charges.

Many DUI cases are filed everyday where the blood alcohol content is below the legal limit or a breathalyzer is faulty. While it may have been true that Pearce was under the limit at the time of the test and that the breathalyzer was inaccurate, had it been a regular member of the public, charges for driving under the influence would still have been filed and prosecutors would have left it to the defendant their attorney to dispute the results.

The same thing can likely be said for the refusal to file domestic violence charges. If prosecutors declined to prosecute domestic violence charges when anybody “could argue [they were] defending [themselves],” then they’d never prosecute anyone. And believe me, in the many domestic violence cases I’ve handled, not once has a prosecutor dropped a case because a person “could argue that they were defending themselves.”

So now let me ask you: Is this a coincidence?

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California DUI with a High BAC

Friday, September 29th, 2017

Many people know that the legal blood alcohol content limit is 0.08 percent and that if caught driving with a 0.08 percent or more, they will face the penalties associated with a DUI. Few people however know that if they are caught driving with a blood alcohol content that is much higher than the legal limit, they face additional penalties.

The mandatory minimum punishment for a first time DUI conviction in California is $390 plus penalties and assessments, which are like court taxes and will increase the overall amount to about $2,000, three years of summary (informal) probation, and a three-month DUI program called AB-541.

The first consequence of a driver having a high blood alcohol content, beyond the mandatory minimum penalties mentioned above, is that they must admit to having a high blood alcohol content. The prosecutor may include in the criminal complaint a “special allegation” that the driver’s blood alcohol content was high. In addition to pleading guilty to the DUI itself, as part of a plea deal, prosecutors often want the driver to admit on the record that the special allegation that their blood alcohol content was particularly high.

A driver may also be facing a longer DUI program. AB 762 is a six-month program and AB 1353 is a nine-month program and both can be offered as part of plea deal for an elevated blood alcohol content. There is an 18-month program called SB 38, but it is reserved for people who have been convicted of one or more California DUI’s within the past 10 years. 

Another additional penalty that a person faces after a California DUI conviction with a high blood alcohol content is the Mothers Against Drunk Driving Victim Impact Panel. According to Mother Against Drunk Driving (MADD), one of their main goals is to prevent recidivism of DUI offenses. In an attempt to accomplish this, MADD provides one-day presentations where convicted DUI offenders listen to the stories of people whose lives have been negatively affected by drunk driving. The speakers are usually victims of DUI-related collisions or relatives of those who were killed as the result of DUI-related collisions.

The prosecutor might also offer a Hospital and Morgue (HAM) program. The name is exactly what the program entails. The person convicted of the California DUI must visit with doctors at a hospital who address the dangers of driving drunk and experience the health consequences of driving drunk. Following the hospital visit, the person must visit a morgue where they view the bodies that are stored there and are confronted with the ultimate consequence of driving drunk and other risky behavior. After both the hospital and morgue components are completed, the person must write an essay reflecting on their experience, the lessons learned, and behavior moving forward.

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings might also be offered as an additional penalty when a BAC is particularly high. According to its own website, www.aa.org, “AA is an international fellowship of men and women who have a drinking problem…Membership is open to anyone who wants to do something about his or her drinking problem.” AA meetings are relatively easy to locate and are offered throughout the week at varying times. Since the meetings only typically last one hour to 90 minutes, the court usually requires at least 10 meetings. For extremely high BAC readings, a person may have to a significant amount of AA meetings.

Lastly, a person may actually have to serve jail time. Whether a prosecutor will want jail for an elevated BAC depends other aggravating factors surrounding the DUI, the county in which the DUI took place, and the courthouse itself. Although it is the most severe of the increased penalties and unlikely to be offered, it is possible.

A driver with a particularly high blood alcohol content may face one, all, or a combination of any of the abovementioned increased penalties. Other, less frequent penalties, such as a SCRAM device or an ignition interlock device, may also be included. Since these penalties are not mandatory, it is important to hire a California DUI attorney to possibly eliminate them as part of a DUI sentence.

 

 

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