Should Courts Allow Cops to be “Experts” in Drug Intoxication for DUI Cases?

Thursday, April 18th, 2019

It is not uncommon for police to be trained in recognizing drug intoxication. But should they be allowed to testify as experts in court about drug intoxication in DUI cases?

At least one judge believes not, and rightfully so.

Timothy B. Callahan, from Cheshire, Massachusetts, was pulled over in May of 2016 after police received a report that he had smoked laced marijuana and was acting violently. Additionally, he was alleged to have been speeding and driving erratically before the stop.

Callahan was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence (operating a motor vehicle under the influence or “OUI” as it’s called in Massachusetts).

While being booked, police called in Officer Brennan Polidoro to observe Callahan.

Polidoro received a drug-recognition certificate in 2014 and has since been considered the only Drug Recognition Expert in the county. As of the summer of 2018, Polidoro had evaluated over 15 people accused of driving under the influence of narcotics.

Following Polidoro’s evaluation of Callahan, Polidoro determined that Callahan was under the influence of drugs and Polidoro’s conclusions were included into the police report.

During Callahan’s criminal case, prosecutors sought to have the court recognize Polidoro as an expert so that he could provide testimony about the effects of drugs on a human and offer an opinion as to whether someone was under the influence of drugs.  

Callahan’s attorney filed a motion seeking to exclude Polidoro’s testimony as an expert.

During the hearing on whether Polidoro should be allowed to testify as an expert, the prosecution offered evidence that Polidoro was trained in drug recognition and that the training was based on three law enforcement studies from 1985, 1986, and 1994. Evidence was also offered that after evaluating 12 individuals during training, Polidoro was determined to be “proficient” by his instructors who formed their opinions as to his proficiency based on the same studies.

Let me get this straight. The prosecution is arguing that an officer should be deemed an “expert” in how chemicals affect the human body if other law enforcement officers think they’re proficient, not physicians or chemists or other medical professionals? “Proficiency” after 12 training evaluations, really? Am I missing something? Does Polidoro have a background in chemistry or medicine?

What’s more, “proficiency” as determined by law enforcement is an accuracy rate of 43% to 49% when people did not have drugs in their system. Really?!?! That means that law enforcement considers being wrong 57% to 51% of the time as “proficient.” With people’s lives at stake, you’d think they’d set their standards a little bit higher.

Fortunately, the court disagreed with the prosecution.

“As law enforcement has embraced these studies as the basis for their trainings, the Court finds that, `proficient,’ as used by law enforcement means a 43% to 49% accuracy rate for identifying those subjects with no drugs in their systems,” said Judge Jennifer Tyne. “The Court does not find this to be reliable, let alone proficient.”

“Based on the evidence presented at this hearing, the Court finds that the body of knowledge, the principles and the methods that the officer was instructed on are not reliable predictors of whether an individual is under the influence of certain narcotics,” Tyne said.

Having denied the prosecution the ability to introduce Polidoro’s testimony about drug recognition and the effects of drugs on humans as an expert, Judge Tyne did, however, say that Polidoro could testify about his observations of Callahan and any statements Callahan might have made after Callahan’s arrest.

Callahan may very well have been under the influence of drugs while driving, but that’s not the point. The court should not allow the testimony of “experts” without a sufficient basis to deem that person an expert. Doing so can lead to wrongful convictions in DUI and any other types of criminal cases.

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Shooting a Gun while Intoxicated Less Dangerous than Driving while Intoxicated?

Thursday, April 4th, 2019

The New York Legislature last month voted to lower the blood alcohol limit allowed while hunting to match the threshold for the blood alcohol content someone can have while driving.

On March 26th of this year, the New York Assembly voted 147 – 1 to amend the law that previously outlawed hunting in the state with a blood alcohol content of 0.10 percent or higher. The following day, the New York senate voted 56 – 5 to amend the law. Under the amended law, hunters cannot have a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent or higher, matching blood alcohol content limit while driving in most states, including California (Utah just became the first state to lower its blood alcohol content limit to 0.05 percent).

Under the new law, hunting with a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent or more is a misdemeanor and carries a fine of up to $500, up to a year in jail, and a revocation of a person’s hunting license for two years. Additionally, licensed hunters who refuse to submit to a breath or other test for intoxication can also have their licenses revoked.

“These changes were based in part on studies which determined that this level of alcohol in an individual’s bloodstream can result in substantially impaired motor skills, perception and judgment,” Assemblyman Kenneth Zebrowski wrote in his sponsor’s memo. “These are also critical skills used in hunting.”

In California and other states, DUI laws generally include prohibitions against both driving with a per se blood alcohol limit of 0.08 percent or higher (or 0.05 percent or higher in Utah) and driving while under the influence (or some other iteration like “driving while intoxicated” or “operating under the influence”).

The purpose for this is that nobody should be driving while actually under the influence, meaning that they cannot drive like a reasonable and sober person would. And, as Mr. Zebrowski stated, at a 0.08 percent, studies have shown that the motor skills of individuals, albeit very subjectively, are affected to a degree that might impair driving.

Like Zebrowski, lawmakers who approved of New York’s new limit expressly cited the risk of injury and death.

“An individual who is too intoxicated to drive a car or pilot a boat is also unfit to engage in hunting and the increased risk is not only to the hunter, but to everyone else in the field,” Zebrowski, a Rockland County Democrat, wrote. “This bill would ensure a consistent standard for intoxication in state law.”

Sure, it sounds like they’re considering driving with a blood alcohol content limit of 0.08 percent just as dangerous as shooting a gun with a blood alcohol content limit of 0.08 percent or higher.  But are they really?

Let me get this straight. It is illegal to shoot a gun and drive with a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent or higher. Fine. However, it is also illegal to drive a vehicle while “under the influence” regardless of what a person’s blood alcohol content is. Yet, a person can shoot, say a semi-automatic rifle, if they are “under the influence,” but not necessarily above a 0.08 percent.

Let me give an example. Take a person weighing less than a hundred pounds who has never had a sip of alcohol before in their life. If they have a couple of beers, they may not be above a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent, but they’re certainly going to be “drunk” or “under the influence.” New York is telling them, “Sure, go shoot that gun, but don’t you dare drive.”

Really?

It seems to me, and I would hope others would agree, that using any firearms with any alcohol seems patently dangerous, and certainly more dangerous than driving a vehicle. Not that I’m saying it’s safe to drive with alcohol in your system. Neither are safe. But if lawmakers are using a driving under the influence as a measuring standard for how they draft other laws, then it should actually be equal at a minimum, if not more restrictive for more dangerous activities. Or is this just another example of the overzealous vilification of DUI’s?

New York’s new law becomes effective September 1st.

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Should California Lower its BAC Limit?

Friday, March 29th, 2019

It’s not a novel question. Should California lower the blood alcohol content limit before someone can be arrested, charged, and convicted of a DUI in the state?

Although a nationwide blood alcohol content limit was suggested prior, it was not until 2001 that the Department of Transportation said it would cut funding to states that did not maintain a blood alcohol content limit of 0.08 percent for DUI cases. As a result, all states adopted a 0.08 percent blood alcohol content limit. However, as of January 1st of this year, Utah became the first state to lower the blood alcohol content limit to 0.05 percent making it the strictest in the country.

A new bill introduced in California hopes to follow in Utah’s footsteps.

Introduced by Assemblywoman Autumn Burke (D-Marina del Rey), AB1713, otherwise known as Liam’s Law, would lower California’s BAC limit to 0.05 percent.

The bill was named in honor of a 15-month old who was struck and killed by a drunk driver in 2016 when his aunt was pushing his stroller across Hawthorne Boulevard. Liam was the son of former mixed martial art fighter Marcus Kowal and his wife, Mishel Eder. Since then, both have been pushing for a lower BAC limit and Burke said that she had been influence by them.

“Every year, we see drunk drivers kill or injure our friends and loved ones because they thought they were OK to drive,” said Assemblyman Heath Flora (R-Ripon), who co-authored the bill and who also introduced a bill to increase the penalties for repeat DUI offenders. “Lowering the [blood alcohol content] limit to .05 percent has [been] shown to decrease DUI-related traffic fatalities by serving as a deterrent to folks driving drunk in the first place.”

Flora is referring to studies that suggest people begin to start feeling the effects of alcohol at 0.04 percent, and which have been used by the National Transportation Safety to justify its support of a 0.05 percent limit.

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.

On the other hand, 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.

This raises another question: Is this law merely changing the definition of “drunk” to cast a wider net, thus creating more “criminals”?

“When (a bill) is first introduced, the 10,000-foot view is, ‘This is a law that’s tough on drunk driving. It should pass pretty easily,’” said Jackson Shedelbower, spokesman for the American Beverage Institute. “But in reality, it’s not tough on drunk driving. It’s punishing moderate, social drinkers. It’s focusing traffic safety resources away from people who are the real problem toward people who aren’t the problem.”

Shedelbower went on to say that most DUI-related collisions are caused by drivers with BAC levels higher than 0.05 and repeat offenders, and that having a BAC level of 0.05 is less impairing than talking on a hands-free cell phone while driving.

Should the bill become law, many could be arrested after having a single drink and certainly when they’re not even drunk. I’m sorry, but I thought DUI laws were meant to protect against impaired driving. I’m not so sure that the hoped effect of the bill is worth the collateral consequence of arresting, charging, and convicting non-impaired drivers.  

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Can an Unconscious Driver Give Consent to have a Blood Alcohol Test?

Friday, March 8th, 2019

The Founding Fathers drafted the Constitution, specifically the first 10 Amendments, mindful that the government could and may at some point in our country’s future subvert our individual rights, such as the right to be free of unreasonable governmental searches and seizures. Specifically, the Fourth Amendment prohibits the government from “unreasonable searches and seizures.” Simply put, if a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy in a particular place, the government cannot search it unless, amongst other things, it has a warrant to do so or if it obtains voluntary consent to the search.

That was then. Mitchell v. Wisconsin is now.

The United States Supreme Court is currently deciding a case that will determine if police can withdraw blood from an unconscious suspected drunk driver without their express consent.

In May of 2013, Gerald Mitchell was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol. While en route to the police station, Mitchell became lethargic and the officers instead took him to a hospital. There, the officers attempted to read Mitchell his rights as well as a statutorily mandated form regarding Wisconsin’s implied consent law. Mitchell, however, was already too close to unconsciousness to understand, if not unconscious already. That didn’t stop the officers. They ordered hospital workers to withdraw blood from Mitchell without his express consent. The blood test revealed a blood alcohol content of 0.22 percent, almost double the legal limit.

Implied consent laws, which exist in every state, declare that every driver, through merely having a government-issued driver’s license and using state-owned roadways, has impliedly agreed to take a blood-alcohol test if arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence.

Mitchell was charged with a DUI (or OWI – operating while intoxicated – as it’s called in Wisconsin). He moved to suppress the results arguing that the officers did not have a warrant and that he did he did not give his express consent. Prosecutors argued that neither a warrant nor express consent were required because of the implied consent law. The trial court sided with the prosecutors and Mitchell was convicted.

Mitchell appealed and the court of appeals certified the case to the Supreme Court of Wisconsin on the issue of “whether the warrantless blood draw of an unconscious motorist pursuant to Wisconsin’s implied consent law…violates the Fourth Amendment.” The Supreme Court of Wisconsin accepted the certification and upheld Mitchell’s conviction. Earlier this year, however, the United States Supreme Court decided to take on the case.

It couldn’t come at better time either. State court stances on the issue have been all over the place.

Some states have struck down laws that allow prosecution of someone who refuses a blood alcohol test in violation of the implied consent law. Some states have held that warrantless, consentless searches are unconstitutional and, therefore, the evidence obtained by the search is inadmissible against the driver at a DUI trial. Others, like Wisconsin, have held that the Constitution and the Fourth Amendment don’t matter as long as implied consent laws allow law enforcement to search DUI suspects carte blanche.

Let’s take this step by step. The officers in Mitchell’s case do not need a warrant if Mitchell does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the place that law enforcement is searching. We’re not talking about Mitchell’s garage. We’re not talking about his car. We’re not even talking about his home. We’re talking about the thing that we as humans consider to be the most private; our body. I’ll even take it a step further and say that we’re talking about a search of the contents of someone’s blood. You damn well better believe that we have a reasonable expectation of privacy in our bodies and our blood.

Since Mitchell had a reasonable expectation of privacy, the Constitution requires that the officers either get a warrant or get Mitchell’s consent. They did not have a warrant nor did Mitchell give consent because he was, for all intents and purposes, unconscious. Yet, they searched and found what they were looking for.

Wisconsin’s Supreme Court, in allowing Mitchell’s blood and blood alcohol content to be used against him in a criminal case, has essentially said that unconscious drivers can give consent, and have already done so.

How? Because the state legislature has subjectively and in contradiction to the Constitution of the United States created a law that gives the government the right to search without a warrant or consent.

The Founding Fathers were right to be wary of the government, clearly. Let’s just hope that the United States Supreme Court decides Mitchell’s issue bearing in mind what the Founding Fathers had intended and what they wrote in the Constitution.

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Oregon State Crime Lab Backlog May Affect DUI Cases

Thursday, January 24th, 2019

The Oregon State Police crime lab is behind on its testing, way behind, and it’s affecting DUI cases in the state.

The chemical tests for motorists accused of driving under the influence has a backlog of about 14 months. While that is bad, it’s better than some departments within the lab such as property crimes, where they no longer process DNA for property crimes such as theft to allow more focus on other cases, such as sexual assault. This is problematic since the statute of limitations (the time period for which a prosecutor can file a criminal case) on a case might, and in many cases will run, without having the evidence tested.

Oregon’s Linn County District Attorney’s office handled more than 500 DUI cases in 2018. Alcohol related cases can use breathalyzers as evidence without the need for a crime lab. However, not all of the DUI cases that the DA’s office handles are alcohol related. About half of the DUI cases in Linn County involve other drugs where levels are determined by urine tests. The current backlog of 14 months is still within the standard statute of limitations of two years, so cases can still likely be filed. In its current state and with crime never ceasing, the crime lab is undoubtedly overworked, understaffed, and limited with what they can do. Therefore, the statute of limitations for some of those DUI’s may too come and go, which is unfair to both the prosecutors as well as the accused.

Although representatives of the District Attorney’s office were unaware of any cases directly being impacted by the turnaround time of the lab, Benton County District Attorney John Haroldson said, “The turnaround time for the lab is impacting our office because we’re having to wait for extended periods of time. But it’s critical for me to note that the [Oregon State police] crime lab, no matter how well they do their job, they have a finite capacity. and when that finite capacity is exceeded, the impact for us is the delay on having the lab work done.”

However, Haroldson also went on to say that, although a statute of limitation may not have run, suspects should not have to wait that long to be formally charged.

“Part of seeking justice is doing all we can to make sure that our systems are fair to everyone, including the accused. Long delays do not represent the best work that we can do if we were properly funded,” said Haroldson.

It was also noted that the testing delays can also lead to increased risks to the public as motorists who were suspected of driving under the influence will not have their licenses suspended until the charges have at least been filed. One county had at least four drivers who were arrested twice for DUI during 2018 and whose cases were yet to be settled as their lab results were still pending months later.

With Oregon’s legalization of recreational marijuana in 2015, the number of requests for toxicology tests have only continued to increase. As Oregon’s population also continues to rise, it can be anticipated that the growth in demand for the lab’s services will also continue to rise. Although science and technology have evolved to make some of the processes go much smoother and faster, toxicology result turnaround times still take much longer than our TV crime solvers make us believe. What’s more, costs are still too high to effectively rely on outsourcing as part of the solution.

Amanda Dalton, a lobbyist on behalf of the Oregon District Attorney Association, says that the association is hoping to change the backlog situation through current legislation.

“We believe delayed testing is a crisis as it relates to DUI prosecution and overall community safety and that [the Oregon State Police] is doing all they can with the resources they currently have,” said Dalton.

Although the Oregon District Attorneys Association realizes that the legislation currently proposed will not solve the problem, they maintain hope that it will, at a minimum, start the conversation that will eventually lead to the appropriate funding to fix the issues.

 

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