LAPD Officer Charged with DUI Murder

Tuesday, April 24th, 2018

A Los Angeles Police Department officer was arrested last week on suspicion of three counts of murder as the result of a suspected DUI-related collision in Whittier last fall.

On September 26, 2017, Edgar Verduzco, 27, was allegedly speeding in the carpool lane under the influence of alcohol on the 605 freeway in Whittier, California, when his Chevy Camaro collided into the rear of a Nissan. The Nissan burst into flames and Verduzco’s vehicle went on to hit a second vehicle.

A family of three – Mario Davila, 60, Maribel Davila, 52, and their son, Oscar Davila, 19 – were the occupants of the Nissan and all three died as a result of the collision. The occupant of the second vehicle suffered minor injuries. Verduzco suffered a broken nose.

Before the collision, Verduzco posted a video on Instagram from a bar and included the hastag #Dontdrinkanddrive. The video depicted a male in a police uniform with a badge with the name “Verduzco.” The video also showed an animated person sitting in a car which appeared to be sitting on the bar counter with beers.

Although the LAPD could not verify the authenticity of the post or the account’s owner, KTLA reported that other videos on the account show a Chevy Camaro and a police officer which appears to be Verduzco in an LAPD patrol car.

For anybody else, officers responding to a collision where drunk driving was suspected would have whipped out their breathalyzers quicker than a gunslinger in the old west. Suspiciously, however, the officers who responded to the collision did not give Verduzco a breathalyzer to determine his BAC at the scene even though, according to California Highway Patrol, he showed signs of intoxication. Instead, a blood test was later conducted and Verduzco was subsequently released on bail pending the outcome of the blood test.

Although it is unclear whether the blood result is in, Verduzco was re-arrested at a friend’s house in Long Beach last week and was booked on three counts of second degree murder, three counts of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and drunk driving causing injury.

Last Friday, Verduzco continued his arraignment to May 16th. However, it was not before Judge Deborah S. Brazil set his bail at $6.1 million.

It is unclear why Verduzco is being charged with murder in addition to the “lesser-included” vehicular manslaughter. If you’ve read my numerous posts on a DUI-murder charge (also known as “Watson murder”), you’ll know that to charge murder, prosecutors need to prove that the driver was expressly aware of the dangers of driving drunk, yet they did so anyways. This is usually proven when the driver suffered a prior DUI conviction and is admonished on the dangers of driving drunk. Since there is no indication that Verduzco suffered a prior DUI conviction, my guess would be that his position as a law enforcement officer, whose job it is to arrest people on suspicion of DUI, makes him expressly aware of the dangers of driving drunk.

Verduzco is an Army veteran who joined the LAPD in 2015 after returning from a tour of duty in Afghanistan.

“There’s never an excuse for driving under the influence, and if Officer Verduzco is found guilty of whatever he is accused of, then he should suffer the consequences for his reckless actions,'’ said the Los Angeles Police Protective League in a statement issued shortly after the collision.

“My heart goes out to the victims and families so tragically impacted by Verduzco’s criminal actions,” said police Chief Charlie Beck. “Police officers have a moral and legal obligation to abide by the laws that they enforce. [The] arrest demonstrates how seriously we take that obligation.

Stay tuned for updates.

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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.

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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!

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San Clemente Woman Faces DUI Vehicular Manslaughter Charges After OC Crash

Thursday, March 29th, 2018

A few weeks ago, I posted on the different ways that a DUI can be charged as a felony. One of the ways is if a DUI-related collision causes death or injury to another person. Additionally, if the DUI leads to the death of someone, the driver could also be facing felony vehicular manslaughter charges, possibly even second degree murder charges.

27-year-old Bani Duarte, of San Clemente, found this out the hard way when her Hyundai Sonata rear-ended a Toyota causing it to burst into flames. Three of the occupants were killed and one seriously injured.

In the early morning hours of Thursday, March 29th, a Toyota carrying four Las Vegas residents was stopped at Pacific Coast Highway and Magnolia Street in Huntington Beach. That’s when Duarte collided with the vehicle causing it to burst into flames.

Alex Martinez, 20, of Huntington Beach, witnessed the collision and described the incident with the OC Register.

“Martinez…was in a car with his friends returning from the gym when they saw the woman’s white vehicle swerving, at times speeding and hitting sidewalks.

‘She went to the far right side of the lane and hit the sidewalk really bad and that’s when we decided to call the cops,’ Martinez said Thursday.

“He told police he believed it was a drunken driver going northbound on Pacific Coast Highway. He and his friends followed the woman’s car until it stopped on metered parking by Orange Street.

“Martinez and his friends pulled up to Duarte and asked if she was okay, he said.

“‘I told her she hit two sidewalks back there and she said “Really? No way,”’ he said. Martinez’s friends offered her a ride home. She turned them down and soon was off driving again.

“As she approached Magnolia Street, he said, there was a red car stopped in a middle lane of the intersection. She braked, but then sped up and hit the car which immediately caught fire, Martinez said.

“Martinez said he and his friends reported the crash to police and saw someone leave the red car. He described the male as appearing to be unhurt.

“‘I think he was in shock because he walked towards us all confused, not really knowing what just happened,’ he said. ‘So he sat down and we asked him if there were other people in the car and he said there was three more in the car.’

“‘The car was already in flames and the backseat doors were just crushed by the impact.’

“Martinez said he and his friends and some others who stopped at the crash tried to help but couldn’t get to the people inside. Firefighters extinguished the blaze as Duarte remained in her car after the crash, he said.

“‘I felt powerless and guilty,’ Martinez said.

“He said he was told by officers on scene that the fatalities appeared to be teenagers. Some social media posts have also indicated the victims were young people visiting the area for Spring Break. Huntington Beach police did not release information about the ages or identifies of the victims.

“Martinez described the experience as traumatizing.

“‘Such young people dying in the worst possible way.’ Martinez said. ‘They had their whole life ahead of them and for it to be taken away by a drunk driver is just awful.’”

News outlets have reported that the victims were Las Vegas high school students on spring break. The victims have also since been identified as AJ Rossi, Dylan Mack, and Brooke Hawley. The injured passenger was identified as Alexis Vargas.

Duarte will certainly be facing felony DUI with injury charges and vehicular manslaughter charges. It is unclear, however, whether Duarte will be facing murder charges. Prosecutors will increase the charges to murder if Duarte has previously been convicted of a DUI-related conviction.

I’ll take this opportunity to remind readers that it is easy to jump to conclusions about the guilt of Duarte (and all DUI defendants for that matter), especially given the facts of the incident. However, the law requires that we presume that people are innocent until they are proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt by a prosecutor or until they accept a plea deal. If Duarte is, in fact, guilty, I am not defending her actions, I am merely reiterating one of the most fundamental canons of American criminal law.  And if she is guilty of what she is being accused of, then she will be punished within the confines of the law.

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Drunk Driving on St. Patrick’s Day

Thursday, March 15th, 2018

It’s that time of year again when the green beer flows like wine, corned beef and cabbage are consumed for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and failing to wear something green can lead to unwanted pinches. Yup, I’m talking about St. Patrick’s Day. While most Americans celebrate Irish heritage on March 17th, the day actually commemorates the arrival of Christianity in Ireland as well as marks the death of the holiday’s namesake, Saint Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland.

Synonymous with the holiday is the consumption of copious amounts of alcohol, be it the green beer mentioned above, an Irish coffee (coffee with Irish whiskey and Irish cream), an “Irish Car-Bomb” (dropping a shot of ½ Irish whiskey and ½ shot of Irish cream into a ¾ pint of Guinness), or just a good-old frosty pint of the Irish dry stout, Guinness.

Needless to say, law enforcement is well aware that people will be drinking excessively, especially since St. Patrick’s Day falls on a Saturday this year. Consequently, they will be out in full-force to nab drunk drivers from the streets. Expect saturation patrols and DUI checkpoints in high traffic areas.

“Don’t let a day of celebration turn into a day of tragedy. If you drive impaired, you risk your life and the lives of others on the road,” California Highway Patrol Commissioner Warren Stanley said in a statement. “Plan ahead before the party begins by designating a sober driver or making arrangements for a taxi or ride-hailing service.”

According to CHP, last year saw three people killed and 66 people injured in DUI-related collisions in California on St. Patrick’s Day. What’s more, CHP arrested 148 people on suspicion of driving under the influence. 

Don’t count on Irish luck to get you out of a DUI should you hop behind the wheel after having one too many green beers. There are somethings that you can do to make sure that stay out of jail on St. Patrick’s Day.

Appoint a designated driver. It’s not enough, however, to merely appoint the DD. You need make sure that they remain sober. Being a designated driver means actually remaining sober, not just drinking less that their passengers. There have been several instances this past year where designated drivers have been arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence.

If neither you nor your friends are willing to be a designated driver, consider public transportation. This includes taxi cabs and busses as well as ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft. Be aware, however, that getting a cab, Uber, or Lyft might be as difficult as finding a four-leafed clover since St. Patrick’s Day is one of the busiest days of the year for cab, Uber, and Lyft drivers.

Lastly, as unappealing as it might be, the only surefire way to avoid a DUI is to not drink if you plan to drive this St. Patrick’s Day.

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