NJ Man Busted for DUI on E-Scooter

Thursday, October 10th, 2019

A New Jersey man was stopped for a DUI in Hoboken, New Jersey after police found him intoxicated riding an “e-scooter;” the public scooters scattered across many cities that can be rented through a smartphone app.

Nicholas Cutrone, 26, was arrested this past weekend for DWI (the New Jersey equivalent of California’s “DUI”) for riding a e-scooter. According to police Cutrone was found “unsteady and staggering” when he unlocked the scooter and rode away.

“[Cutrone] was driving unsteady as he swayed back and forth appearing as if he was going to lose control at any moment,” said Detective Sgt. Jonathan Mecka.

Police say that Cutrone’s arrest marks the second drunk driving scooter arrest since the service was launched in spring.

As is the case with many cities here in Southern California, Lime e-scooters now sit on the corner of many busy intersections available to be rented to anyone with a credit card and a smartphone.

In August, a 45-year-old man because the first to be arrested for drunkenly operating an e-scooter in Hoboken after crashing, according to police.

Jeffrey English suffered multiple fractures to his face and mouth when he crashed his e-scooter between two cars. English “admitted to drinking a substantial amount of alcohol” before jumping off the scooter.

As I mentioned, e-scooters are already here in California, and I’m sure you’ve seen them around town. 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.

But can you ride after having a few drinks here in California?

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.”

Based on this language, it seems as though the California Legislature intended to treat e-scooter riders the same as traditional vehicle drivers the same, even when it comes to driving/riding under the influence.

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. Additionally, California Penal Code section 19.8 states that “any violation which is an infraction is punishable by a fine not exceeding two hundred fifty dollars ($250). This necessarily means that a DUI on an electric scooter in California cannot be charged as anything more than an infraction with a penalty of nothing more than the $250 fine. In other words, a DUI on a scooter in California cannot be treated like a misdemeanor DUI. It cannot carry the same penalties as a DUI and, as an infraction, it will not appear on the rider’s criminal record.

Unfortunately, police and prosecutors in California have been only considering the first law mentioned above and treating DUIs on e-scooters the same as a DUI in a regular vehicle. For this reason, it is imperative to hire an experienced and knowledgeable California DUI attorney to argue the difference in laws between scooters and vehicles.

I recently had one of these cases. My client, the scooter rider, was originally charged with a misdemeanor DUI as though he had been driving a traditional vehicle. If convicted as a misdemeanor, my client was looking at three to five years of probation, an 18-month DUI course (because he had a prior conviction), 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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DUI Stop After an Anonymous Tip

Friday, September 27th, 2019

The holiday season is fast approaching and before you know it, law enforcement will be ramping up its efforts to catch drunk drivers. Their efforts will inevitably include saturation patrols and DUI checkpoints, but they might also include, as they’ve done in the past, an ad campaign encouraging motorists on the road to contact law enforcement if they suspect that another driver is under the influence.

If an anonymous caller tips off police that someone might be driving drunk, the officer has no personal knowledge of facts that would lead them to believe that someone is driving drunk. The officer is only going off of what the tip had said. The tip could be accurate, it could be a lie, or it could just be mistakenly inaccurate. An officer must have probable cause to stop a driver on suspicion of a DUI, and probable cause means that the officer has reasonable and trustworthy facts that the driver is drunk.

The question becomes: Can an anonymous tip give an officer the required probable cause to stop a driver on suspicion of driving under the influence?

The United States Supreme Court in 2014 concluded in the case of Navarette v. California that an officer can use an anonymous tip as the basis for a DUI stop.

In Navarette v California, a motorist was pulled over by California Highway Patrol after an anonymous tip. The anonymous tipster told the dispatcher that they had been run off of Highway 1 near Fort Bragg by someone driving a pickup truck and provided the pickup’s license plate number. As the CHP officer approached the pickup, they smelled marijuana and discovered four bags of it inside the bed of the truck.

Officers identified the occupants of the truck as brothers Lorenzo Prado Navarette and Jose Prado Navarette.

At trial, the brothers filed a motion to suppress evidence claiming that the officers lacked the reasonable suspicion needed to stop them, thus violating the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution. The judge, however, denied the motion. The brothers then pleaded guilty to transporting marijuana and were sentenced to 90 days in jail, but appealed.

At the appellate level, the court ruled against the brothers saying, “The report that the [Navarettes’] vehicle had run someone off the road sufficiently demonstrated an ongoing danger to other motorists to justify the stop without direct corroboration of the vehicle’s illegal activity.”

The brothers appealed again, this time to the United States Supreme Court. Once again, the court concluded that an anonymous tip alone can give law enforcement the justification to pull someone over on suspicion of driving under the influence.

In quoting the previous case of Alabama v. White, the Supreme Court said, “[U]nder appropriate circumstances, an anonymous tip can demonstrate ‘sufficient indicia of reliability to provide reasonable suspicion to make [an] investigatory stop.’”

In finding that the anonymous tip was reliably, the court relied on the fact that the caller claimed eyewitness knowledge of dangerous driving, the fact that the tip was made contemporaneously with the eyewitness knowledge of the dangerous driving, and the fact that the caller used 911 to make the tip (knowing that the call could be traced).

According to the Court, if the tip bears “sufficient indicia of reliability,” officers need not observe driving which would give rise to suspicion that a person was driving under the influence or even that the driver committed a traffic violation. They only need the unverified and unsupported anonymous tip. 

Does anyone else see the problem here?

Justice Scalia did and he voiced his concern in his dissent to the majority opinion in Navarette v. California.

 “Drunken driving is a serious matter, but so is the loss of our freedom to come and go as we please without police interference. To prevent and detect murder we do not allow searches without probable cause or targeted Terry stops without reasonable suspicion. We should not do so for drunken driving either. After today’s opinion all of us on the road…are at risk of having our freedom of movement curtailed on suspicion of drunkenness, based upon a phone tip, true or false, of a single instance of careless driving.”

Anonymous tipsters are not necessarily reporting on drunk drivers (they don’t know if who they’re reporting on is even drunk). Rather, they are reporting driving errors, any of which can be interpreted as drunk driving. Everybody makes mistakes while driving. In fact, it might be fair to say that no driving trip is perfect and that all driving trips, no matter how short or simple, contain some mistakes. This necessarily means that everyone on the road is a target of anonymous tipsters and anyone can be stopped on suspicion of DUI simply because someone else reported their mere driving mistake (even if they are not drunk).

 

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Different DUI Standard for Police?

Tuesday, August 20th, 2019

Anyone who has known someone that has been convicted of a DUI, or who has themselves had the unfortunate experience of suffering the consequences of a DUI, might know that there is the possibility of a obtaining a restricted license during the period of time where driving privileges are suspended. While driving privileges might be restricted during this time, a driver can still drive to and from work with a restricted license.

If a law enforcement officer happens to get caught for a DUI, wouldn’t we expect to hold the officer to the same standard as the rest of us drivers, possibly even a higher standard?

I bring this up because a police officer from Melbourne, Florida is now back behind the wheel of her police cruiser after having been charged with DUI while off duty back in September.

Audrey Poole of the Melbourne Police Department was pulled over for driving 20mph above the speed limit in Palm Bay. Her arrest affidavit as well as a statement from the arresting officer indicates that her eyes were bloodshot, and she smelled of alcohol even before she attempted field sobriety tests. She allegedly failed multiple field sobriety tests and refused to submit to a breathalyzer test, which led to her arrest. The interaction was even caught on dashboard camera footage.

Poole had been working in dispatch since 2012 and was hired as an officer in March 2018. After the arrest, she was suspended for a week without pay, then was placed on administrative leave with pay until Nov. 12th and was assigned desk duty. Under Florida law, she automatically lost her license for one year for refusing a chemical test. A month after the arrest, the state attorney’s office dismissed the DUI charge. According to Assistant State Attorney Leo Domenick, “Although there is sufficient evidence of probable cause for the arrest, based on the lack of a breath (Blood Alcohol Concentration) test, combined with the defendant’s performance on the field sobriety exercises, there is no reasonable likelihood of success at a jury trial.” After two months, Poole was reinstated and allowed to drive a Melbourne police cruiser under a “business purpose only” license which allows her to drive during her on duty hours.

Following the dismissal of charges, she was disciplined for multiple department violations, including conduct unbecoming of an officer, non-compliance with the law, and unlawful consumption of alcohol. In addition, she was also required to complete an alcohol education course and had her probationary status as a new officer extended.

According to some local DUI lawyers, a complete dismissal is unusual for Poole’s case. “It’s pretty rare that you see cases completely dropped, but every case is different. They might get knocked down to a reckless driving or a careless driving sometimes, but with more refusals they won’t negotiate… a dismissal,” says Melbourne-based DUI lawyer Mark Germain.

However, despite earlier reports that Poole failed multiple field sobriety tests, State Attorney spokesperson Todd Brown explained that the lack of a breath test and Poole’s actual performance on the field sobriety tests were sufficient enough to make the burden of proof for trial difficult to meet. Since prosecutors also have an obligation to drop charges that do not meet the burden of proof, it was decided that they would drop the charges. He believes that a member of the public charged in the same circumstances would have resulted in the same conclusion.

Let’s put aside the question that we have regarding the dropped charges for a moment. As an officer of the law, who is supposed to be enforcing the very laws that she disregarded, she was allowed to apply for and was approved for a “business only” license during her license suspension period.

There are multiple factors that can be considered to reach the conclusion that was reached. Poole was off duty, so the charge should have no bearing towards the responsibility she holds during her on duty hours. No chemical test seemed to have taken place, even after her arrest, so there is no factual evidence that she was over the legal limit. Because the charges were dropped, there is no conviction on her record. These are all arguments to allow her to continue to drive for work purposes. Would the same treatment have been given to a non-police officer?

When it comes to the actual charges, at least here in California, Poole would have been charged with a DUI. Prosecutors here in California have actually said that they would rather go to trial and lose a DUI case for lack of evidence than to dismiss it for lack of evidence.  As the local DUI attorneys have pointed out, it’s extremely rare for a prosecutor to dismiss a DUI case give the facts of Poole’s case. In fact, drivers have been charged with a DUI with much less evidence than in Poole’s case.

Again, questions remain: Had Poole been anyone other than an officer, would she have been treated differently? Probably. Would she have been approved for the “business only” driving license? Probably not. Are police held to a different standard when it comes to DUI prosecutions than the rest of us? Although I’d like to answer in the negative, Poole’s case has me thinking otherwise.

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Non-Lawyer Judge Throws Out DUI Against Prosecutor

Thursday, August 15th, 2019

Most of us will agree that we want the courtroom to be a place of fairness and justice. Sadly, some days that just doesn’t seem to be the case. According to Mississippi Department of Public Safety Commissioner, Marshall Fisher, the day a judge made the decision to throw out a DUI case against the Tupelo city attorney was such a day.

According to Fisher, “Judges are to use the law and facts when deciding whether police actions are constitutional, and Justice Court Judge Chuck Hopkins had neither the law nor the facts on his side when he dismissed the case against Tupelo city attorney Ben Logan.”

Back in December, Mr. Logan was stopped at a Mississippi Highway Patrol safety checkpoint and arrested for driving under the influence. He had been seen attempting to avoid the checkpoint by pulling into a private lot of a closed business. Multiple officers witnessed Logan showing visible signs of intoxication such as glassy eyes and slurred speech. He was taken to the Lee County jail but was never booked. He was, however, released to his girlfriend who was allowed to drive him home.

Although hearing was scheduled at the Lee County Justice Court, Logan’s attorneys filed a motion claiming that the checkpoint was unconstitutional. Judge Hopkins agreed with the motion and dismissed the case on July 11th citing court records which apparently did not show that the troopers who conducted the checkpoint had permission from their supervisors.

However, according to Fisher, “No Mississippi Supreme Court case requires law enforcement have permission from their superior before conducting a safety checkpoint. But even if that permission was required, the troopers in this case had it. The Master Sergeant was present and even witnessed Ben Logan avoid the safety checkpoint.”

Mississippi Justice Court is the only court in the state where judges are not required to be attorneys. They are elected positions and according to Jackson County’s website, Justice Court Judges are elected officials serving four-year terms. To qualify to serve as a Justice Judge the candidate must meet the following requirements:

  • High School diploma is mandated
  • Justice Court Training Course provided by the Mississippi Judicial College of the University of Mississippi Law Center
  • Annual continuing education requirement prescribed by the Judicial College
  • Resident of the County at least two years prior to serving.
  • Hold at least one session of court per month, but not more than two.

Guess what? Judge Hopkins is not an attorney and, according to Fisher, “created his own requirements for [the] safety checkpoint.”

Does this bother anyone else? Does it bother anyone else that Judge Hopkins doesn’t need a license to practice law, doesn’t need a law degree, and doesn’t even need an undergraduate college degree?  What’s more, according to the Mississippi Code, newly elected justices have six months to complete their Justice Court Training Course. This essentially means that someone could potentially finish the courses in less time than that.

Attorneys in every other state, for the most part, are required to obtain a four-year undergraduate bachelor’s degree before attending law school. Law schools then select only a handful of top-performing undergraduate students to attend and obtain a law degree. After three grueling years of law school, students obtain a law degree…if they survive law school. Then, if they graduate law school, students can take the bar exam for their respective state, the pass rate of which is often very low (especially here in California). If they pass the bar exam, only then can they become lawyers who can later become judges. This is a screening process to ensure that only qualified, legally versed professionals are able to make important decisions which affect the lives of citizens.

Now contrast this with Mississippi’s lax (to put it mildly) standards.

Lives are literally in the hands of judges and justices. It takes years to learn the law so that it can be applied properly to achieve a just result. It does not and should not take a high school diploma and a six-month (likely less) course. Otherwise, as Fisher pointed out, you have lay-people sitting on judge benches making decision which affect the lives of people, not based on the law, but based on their own personal beliefs, gut feelings, or political preferences.

I find this appalling.

“This case is nothing more than local politics getting the end result they wanted by blaming a state agency,” Fisher said. “When non-lawyer judges start making decisions on what is considered constitutional under the law, these types of mistakes will continue to happen.”

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BUI Blamed for Boater Death

Thursday, August 8th, 2019

The body of a New Jersey man was recovered from Lake Hopatcong in New Jersey this week. The driver of the pontoon boat that he was a passenger on has since been charged with boating under the influence.

This past weekend, 24-year-old Jason Gill of Mr. Arlington was a passenger on a pontoon boat operated by Nicholas Zarantonello, also 24-years-old and from Lake Hopatcong, the lake from which Gill’s body was recovered from. According to state police, Gill fell into the state’s largest fresh-water lake this past Saturday. Although a search started that evening, it was suspended due to poor visibility and lighting in the area.

Search operations continued on Sunday using a helicopter, side-scan SONAR sub-surface detection equipment, the State Police TEAMS Unit, and rescue boats from a nearby fire department. Gill’s body, however, was not recovered until Monday.

Zarantonello, the boat’s operator, has since been arrested, charged with boating under the influence, and has since been released from custody with a future court date.

The drowning took place in an area of the lake that had been under an advisory to avoid swimming because of high levels of harmful algae bloom. Boating, however, was not affected by the advisory.

It goes without saying that DUI laws exist to protect us and others on the road from drivers whose judgment and motor skills have been impaired as the result of alcohol and other intoxicants. The same logic can be applied to laws that prohibit operating a boat while under the influence; namely to protect ourselves and others on the water from boat operators whose judgment and motor skills have been impaired.

Don’t think that because it’s a boat out on the open water that drunk driving laws don’t apply to you.

Boating under the influence is treated in very much the same way as a DUI is treated here in California.

California Harbors and Navigation Code section 655 states in pertinent part: 

(b) No person shall operate any vessel or manipulate water skis, an aquaplane, or a similar device while under the influence of an alcoholic beverage, any drug, or the combined influence of an alcoholic beverage and any drug.

(c) No person shall operate any recreational vessel or manipulate any water skis, aquaplane, or similar device if the person has an alcohol concentration of 0.08 percent or more in his or her blood.

The Harbors and Navigation Code also provides a zero tolerance for aquaplanes and water skis.

What’s more, the penalties for boating under the influence in California are similar to those for a California DUI; up to six months in jail, up to $1,000 in fines and fees, and a California DUI school.

Unlike a California DUI, however, any prior boating under the influence or driving under the influence conviction will only enhance a future boating under the influence charge if the prior conviction occurred within seven years. If you are charged with a California DUI, any California DUI or BUI that occurred in the last 10 years will increase the penalties of the current DUI.

Also, while the passengers of vehicles cannot drink alcohol within the vehicle under California open container laws, passengers of boats can legally drink alcohol on the boat.

In addition to running the risk of getting arrested, charged and convicted, boaters need to also realize the danger to themselves and others when boating under the influence. There are no lanes, no rules of the road, just open water.

 

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