Tag Archives: Driving under the influence
The West Virginia Supreme Court reversed a lower court’s decision and ruled that people can be arrested and convicted of driving under the influence even if it occurred on private property and have their licenses revoked.
The case stems from an incident in 2012 when a man by the name of Joshua Beckett crashed an ATV in a field on the farm owned by his family. Following the collision, Beckett was taken to the hospital where it was discovered that his blood alcohol content was 0.17 percent. He was subsequently charged with driving under the influence.
A magistrate dismissed the DUI case, but an administrative judge upheld a prior revocation of Beckett’s driver’s license for 45 days notwithstanding Beckett’s argument that there was no evidence that he drove on a public street or highway.
Beckett appealed the decision to the Monroe County Circuit Court. There, the circuit court judge ruled that because Beckett’s “actions did not occur on land open to public use,” the administrative judge did not have jurisdiction to revoke his license.
The Division of Motor Vehicles’ commissioner who originally revoked Beckett’s license appealed the decision to the West Virginia Supreme Court.
“The Legislature’s definition of the phrase ‘in this State’ … extends the reach of our driving-under-the-influence laws to any individual driving a vehicle within the physical boundaries of West Virginia, even if the vehicle is driven only upon private property not open to the general public,” Chief Justice Menis Ketchum who wrote a portion of the majority opinion. “The Legislature chose to structure our DUI statutes to regulate the condition of the driver, not the locale in which the driving is taking place. Thus, the Legislature expressed its plain intent to prohibit an intoxicated person from driving a vehicle anywhere in West Virginia, whether on public roads or across private land.”
The decision and its rationale mirrors that which the law here in California.
Division 11 of the California Vehicle Code sets forth the “rules of the road,” if you will, which includes California’s laws against driving with a 0.08 blood alcohol content or higher and driving while under the influence. California Vehicle Code section 21001 states, “The provisions of [Division 11] refer exclusively to the operation of vehicles upon the highways, unless a different place is specifically referred to.” The Code then goes on to state, “[t]he provisions of this chapter apply to vehicles upon the highways and elsewhere throughout the State unless expressly provided otherwise.”
Prior to 1982 the vehicle code made it illegal to drive drunk “upon a highway or upon other than a highway areas in which are open to the general public.” However, in 1982, the legislature deleted the language referring to the locations upon which a person could be arrested and ultimately convicted of drunk driving.
The California Court of Appeals in People v. Malvitz relied on the earlier version of the California Vehicle Code to help clarify the issue. The Court concluded that the “statute that prohibited driving under the influence of alcohol and/or any drug has emerged unencumbered with any language restricting its reach.”
In other words, the Court concluded that it was the intent of the legislature that, in deleting the portion of the statute which referred to location, the law which prohibits drunk driving should extend to anywhere in California where drunk drivers pose a threat included public highways as well private property.
Furthermore, California Vehicle Code section 23215 states, “[law enforcement] may, but shall not be required to, provide patrol or enforce the provisions of [California’s DUI law] for offenses which occur other than upon a highway.”
Whether you’re in West Virginia or in California, it is illegal to drive under the influence on public roads as well as on private property.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about how California DUI law could be affected generally should voters pass Proposition 64 this coming November.
If you haven’t read it, here’s the gist:
If Prop. 64 is approved, California would legalize recreational marijuana this November 8th. As the sixth largest economy in the world and an already existing thriving medical marijuana market, it is estimated that the marijuana industry could become a $6 billion industry by 2020.
While THC is the psychoactive component of marijuana that is detected in cases of DUI of marijuana, there is no way to determine how impaired someone is regardless of how much THC is in their system Unlike alcohol, there is not an established correlation between THC and impairment. As a result, a number of companies are racing to create a roadside test to determine impairment of marijuana rather than just presence of THC.
If Prop. 64 passes, there are many more questions that need answering. One of these questions is whether we will see more marijuana-DUI traffic collisions.
The Los Angeles Times consulted with Beau Kilmer, senior researcher at RAND Corp. specializing in drug policy and co-author of the book “Marijuana Legalization” to ask the very same question.
The Los Angeles Times made mention of the fact that AAA announced last week that it was opposing efforts to legalize marijuana in California and Maine citing statistics showing an increase in marijuana related fatal collisions in Washington, a recreational marijuana state. While AAA opposed Prop. 64, it also conceded, “While the data analyzed for the study did not include enough information to determine which driver was at fault in a given crash.”
To this Kilmer responded, “The bulk of the research suggests that driving drunk is worse than driving stoned, but driving stoned is worse than driving sober. The research suggests that when people are under the influence of both marijuana and alcohol, it does increase the probability of getting into a crash.”
But, he added, “If you are going to be objective about this and you really want to know how marijuana legalization is going to affect traffic safety, you don’t just look at the number of people in crashes who are testing positive for THC. You want to look at total crashes and total accidents. It might be the case that yeah, more people are driving stoned, but some of them are now less likely to drive drunk.”
Kilmer added that the studies are not definitive.
Kilmer’s statements are correct in that, if we are to be objective about this, we can’t just look at AAA’s cited statistic. Just because a person has THC in their system at the time of a collision does not mean that the person is driving under the influence. What’s more, it may be that the amount DUI of alcohol related collisions have reduced since the legalization of recreational marijuana in Washington.
Most of the time, officers don’t know that a person is actually drunk when they pull that person over. You can bet, however, that they’re suspicious. It’s not just the commission of a traffic violation itself that gives them suspicion. It could very well be a number of things.
So what do officers look for when spotting a suspected drunk driver?
Because people who are under the influence have trouble with vision and balance, they often have trouble driving in a straight line. This means that they may weave through traffic, cannot stay in their own lane, drift, straddle one side of a lane, swerve, and/or make wide turns. The California Court of Appeals has held that “pronounced weaving within a lane provides an officer with reasonable cause to stop a vehicle on suspicion of driving under the influence where such weaving continues for a substantial distance.”
Drivers who are under the influence also often have trouble gauging speed and distances. As a result, many drunk drivers have trouble stopping their vehicles as a sober person would. This includes stopping their vehicle too far from a curb or a stop sign as well as stopping their vehicle too suddenly.
Similarly, drunk drivers may also have trouble accelerating and often accelerate abruptly rather than gradually. They might also have trouble maintaining a consistent speed. Now it would be unreasonable to expect a person to maintain the speed perfectly, however the speed of drunk drivers often fluctuates more drastically than one might reasonably expect of a sober driver.
What I’ve mentioned are what officers look for, but what about what they listen for? I’m not talking about the sound of drunk drivers. I’m talking about anonymous tips from callers who may suspect that a person is driving under the influence. Can an officer use an anonymous tip to help him or her “spot” a drunk driver?
In the recent case of Navarette v. California, the United States Supreme Court held that an anonymous tip can give law enforcement the authority to pull someone over on suspicion of driving under the influence. This is true even though it is impossible to verify the reliability of the tip and the officer has not witnessed any driving that would indicate intoxication.
Like I said at the beginning of this post, these are the things that give officers the authority to pull someone over with only the suspicion that they may be driving under the influence. These things alone, however, are not enough to give the office the probable cause to arrest the person on suspicion of driving under the influence.
Once pulled over for the reasons mentioned above, the officer can substantiate their suspicion that the driver is under the influence with their own observations in making the stop. These are the pieces of information that have become as common in DUI police reports as the officer’s name, namely the smell of alcohol, the slurring of words, and the bloodshot and watery eyes of the driver. The officer can then further substantiate their suspicion and produce the probable cause needed to make the DUI arrest if the driver agrees to and fails field sobriety tests and/or produces a pre-arrest breathalyzer result above a 0.08 blood alcohol content.
Whether you’ve had a drink or not, be mindful of what the prying eyes of law enforcement officers are looking for in spotting drunk drivers.
It’s not a common question, but one that I was asked about during a criminal law class that I teach: Is there such a thing as attempted DUI?
“When might this scenario present itself,” you might ask.
Imagine a scenario when a person is extremely drunk at a bar. After leaving the bar, the person enters their vehicle, but cannot start it because they are drunkenly using the wrong key. Unbeknownst to the person, a police officer was outside of the bar and witnessed the whole thing.
The officer can’t arrest the person for a DUI because in California, the law requires that the person actually drive their vehicle. But can the officer arrest the person for attempting to drive drunk?
In People v. Garcia, law enforcement found the defendant in her vehicle which was in the fast lane of the highway with the hazard lights on. As her vehicle began to roll backwards, the defendant unsuccessfully attempted to start the engine. She was, however, able to put the vehicle in park. Law enforcement observed the entire thing and arrested the defendant.
After the defendant was convicted, the court of appeals determined that the crime of “attempt” can be applied to a California DUI.
According to the California Penal Code, an “[a]ttempt requires a specific intent to commit the crime, and a direct but ineffectual act done towards its commission.”
Driving under the influence is, what is called, a “general intent” crime because it only requires that a person intend to commit the act of driving, but not necessarily driving while drunk. A “specific intent” crime, on the other hand, requires that a person intent to commit a crime. Theft, for example, is a specific intent crime because it requires that the person have the specific intent to steal the property of someone else. But very few people intend on driving while drunk. Rather, they intend to drive while they also happen to be drunk. It is subtle, but very important distinction.
The court in Garcia essentially ruled that an attempted California DUI is a specific intent crime. In other words, a person can specifically intend on attempting to commit the crime of driving under the influence, not just the act of driving. This ruling begs the question: If a person can specifically intend to attempt to drive while under the influence, then can the mere fact that they are drunk negate their specific intent to commit a crime?
This may sound a little confusing, so let me put it in other terms. Let’s say a person becomes so drunk that they “black out,” but are still conscious. That person then steals his neighbor’s lawn gnomes because, in his drunken state, he thinks it will be funny. If he is prosecuted for theft, the prosecutor would have to prove that the person had the mental state to specifically commit the crime of theft. This may be difficult for the prosecutor to do if the person was “blacked out” drunk.
So let’s recap. A California DUI is a general intent crime because a person doesn’t intent to drive under the influence. However, when they attempt to drive under the influence, but unsuccessfully do so, it is a specific intent crime where a prosecutor must prove that a person actually intended on committing a crime of attempted DUI. The intoxicating effects of alcohol consumption can serve to negate the specific intent needed to commit the crime of attempted DUI.
So where does that leave us? Unfortunately, I don’t know and I don’t think the court knows either.
The court in Garcia went on to say that it was “not unmindful that there might be some troublesome questions which will have to be resolved in a later case.”
The first word in the acronym DUI is “drive,” yet many people believe that a person can get a California DUI even if they didn’t drive a vehicle. While that may be the case in other states, in California a prosecutor needs to prove that a person actually drove a vehicle while intoxicated.
California Vehicle Code section 23152 (a) and (b) reads, “It is unlawful for a person who is under the influence of any alcoholic beverage or who has 0.08 percent or more, by weight, of alcohol in his or her blood to drive a vehicle.”
So can a person be arrested and subsequently convicted if police find them drunk and passed out in a parked car?
In the 1991 case of Mercer v. Department of Motor Vehicles, the California Supreme Court held that the word “drive” for purposes of California’s DUI law required evidence of a defendant’s volitional movement of a vehicle. With his holding, the California Supreme Court upheld “decades of case law” on the issue.
In 1985, it was held in the case of People v. Wilson that “[w]ith regard to the offence of driving under the influence…a ‘slight movement’ of the vehicle in the officer’s presence has been a determinative factor in concluding whether or not a defendant was ‘driving’ in the presence of the officer.”
So does that mean that the officer must witness a “slight movement” of the vehicle? No.
The court in Wilson went on to say, “On the other hand, where the sufficiency of the evidence to support the judgement is in question, as contrasted with the validity of a defendant’s arrest, it is clear that the existence of evidence establishing a ‘slight movement’ of the vehicle does not present a problem. In the absence of such direct evidence of ‘driving’ the element of ‘driving’ may nonetheless be established at trial through circumstantial evidence…”
Simply put, a prosecutor needs to prove that a DUI suspect, at the very least, caused a vehicle to slightly move. The easiest way to prove that the DUI suspect was driving is if an officer observes a “slight movement” of the vehicle. However, if an officer does not observe a “slight movement,” a prosecutor can still prove that a person drove a vehicle with circumstantial evidence.
Circumstantial evidence that has been used to prove that a person drove for purposes of a California DUI include, but not limited to, officers finding the vehicle at or close to an accident site or finding the vehicle in the middle of the road.
California’s DUI law is different than several other states which only require “dominion and control” over a vehicle. In those states, DUI suspects can be charged and convicted if they are found intoxicated while having “dominion and control” over a vehicle with the potential to drive it.
So to answer our initial question of whether a person can arrested and subsequently convicted of a California DUI if they’re found drunk and passed out in a parked car, the answer is it depends. It depends on whether the prosecutor can prove that the person actually drove the vehicle.