Should the Law Require that Video be Taken during DUI Stops?

Thursday, May 9th, 2019

South Carolina, a state that carries the unfortunate honor of having one of the highest rates of DUI-related deaths in the country, also has one of the most unique DUI laws in the country. But it’s not a law that you would have expected, such as a lower BAC limit or unusually high punishment for a DUI. Rather, the law requires that law enforcement video record all DUI stops.

The law and the repercussions for not following the law has led to law enforcement, prosecutors and even the media to call the law a “camera loophole” that allows drunk drivers “off the hook.”

This week, WBTW News13 reported on this so-called “loophole.”

News13 investigates: ‘Camera loophole’ still letting drunk drivers off the hook

May 9, 2019 – WBTW News13 – South Carolina’s per-mile rate of DUI fatalities is among the highest in the nation every year.

A report released last year ranks the Palmetto State second in the U.S. for drunk driving deaths.

Police and prosecutors say current state law is putting you and your family in danger, because drunk drivers that should be getting convictions are walking away scot-free.

They say one contributing factor is a loophole in the state’s DUI law. It’s called the “camera loophole.”

News13 investigated the camera loophole in 2016. Since then, there has been little effort to fix the law. 

The South Carolina chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving released a three-year report last year. It found that DUI cases that were resolved in less than a year resulted in a 52 percent conviction rate compared to 33 percent in cases that dragged on for more than a year.

South Carolina law requires police to videotape DUI traffic stops. Any small misstep could jeopardize a case — if the driver stumbles out of frame, the driver’s feet can’t be seen, or the shot is too dark.

One video shows a Horry County officer giving a field sobriety test to a man who ran off the side of the road. He can’t walk in a straight line, and the officer said he also failed an eye test.

But because you can’t clearly see his face, Horry County Solicitor Jimmy Richardson said this situation probably wouldn’t hold up in court.

“You’re not all the way on. Or, if your feet as you get closer to the car cut off for a second then that throws the case out,” Richardson said.

You read that correctly: a blip, static, or stumble doesn’t just get the video dismissed, it can get the whole case dropped.

PFC Shon McCluskey with the Myrtle Beach Police Department said a lot of effort goes into setting up the perfect shot.

“It is a process. We’ve actually joked around at times saying sometimes you feel like you have to have an entire live PD scene with you to get every aspect of the case to make sure that everything is perfect.”

McCluskey said he takes extra precaution to make sure his dash cam video frame is wide enough and that there is nothing blocking the shot. But some things are out of his control.

“We’re not working in perfect environments out here every day. It’s not always sunny, it’s not always calm. Sometimes it can be a little windy, it can be rainy.”

Efforts at the legislative level in recent years to change the video requirements have failed. Bills introduced in the House and Senate in 2015 adding more wiggle room to the video requirements never moved out of committees.

None have been introduced in the current session.

News13 asked Jimmy Richardson why little progress has been made.

“Some of my best friends are in the legislature,” Richardson replied, “So present company excluded, about 40 percent of our legislature are attorneys. Only two or three of them are former prosecutors, the other 39.9 percent are defense attorneys. And this is where defense attorneys make their money. So, I would suggest that’s probably why the law is so complicated.”

Attorney and South Carolina Senator Stephen Goldfinch said it’s so complicated, because lawmakers are trying to balance the constitutional rights of everyone.

“Even if they are the lowest of the low, the murderers, the DUI drivers that kill people, the people that none of us want to protect, we have a legal duty, a constitutional duty to protect,” Goldfinch said.

Goldfinch said video evidence isn’t being tossed out of cases as often as law enforcement and advocates claim, but he admitted there are problems with the law.

“There are cases out there that show us that there have been problems in past history in regards to the loophole that you’re talking about,” Goldfinch said. “And I think there are some cases where we could probably close that loophole on. But we’ve got to be careful not to interject ourselves into the middle of the court system and the judicial system and the province of the judge.

Richardson also said that closing any DUI loopholes may need to come from the judges instead of the lawmakers.

“Case law will probably be the way to change that, saying that it doesn’t have to be 100 percent, it’s what is reasonable under the circumstances,” Richardson said. “And just with those four or five words you fix the entire system.”

But is it really fair to call the South Carolina law a loophole?

The purpose of the law is transparency, plain and simple, and for good reason. At a time when the public trust in law enforcement is waning, due in large part to police getting caught engaging in less-than-honest interactions with people, transparency with law enforcement is absolutely essential.

I can tell you firsthand that there is a problem with law enforcement fabricating information in DUI police reports. I have personally handled a case where the police deliberately took a DUI suspect out of dashboard camera range to perform the field sobriety tests, stated in the police report that the suspect failed the tests, and then the person’s blood alcohol content later turned out to be only 0.02 percent, well below the legal limit and an extremely strong indication that the suspect was sober. When handling the case, the prosecutor, who I personally knew, admitted that this was a problem she had seen with several DUI cases.

Let me simplify what I’ve just said. The police deliberately tried concealing their own lie just to put someone in jail for a DUI when that person wasn’t even drunk!

This South Carolina law is not “loophole.” It is ensuring transparency to protect the rights of the public. And if people who are actually driving drunk are “let off the hook,” it’s not because there’s a problem with the law. Rather, it’s because there’s a problem with law enforcement’s ability to abide by the law.

Here are some suggestions: Give better training to your officers, invest in some better dash cam equipment, or better yet, get some body cameras.

Personally, and I hope you would agree, I would rather see law enforcement take a few extra steps towards ensuring transparency than see wrongful DUI arrests by police who just want to add a notch on their belt.

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Wisconsin Looks to Criminalize Drunk Driving

Tuesday, April 30th, 2019

Wisconsin state law makers are continuing the trend of proposing bills that call for more stringent driving under the influence laws.

Under current law in Wisconsin, operating while intoxicated, or “OWI” as it’s called in Wisconsin, is a civil violation with the first offense subject only to a fine of no less than $150 and no more than $300. A second offense will only have increased penalties if the person has committed the OWI within ten years of the first offense or if the OWI offense caused death of great bodily harm to another.

A bi-partisan plan of bills was introduced, with one of the bills pushing to make the first offense a misdemeanor and would call for a fine of up to $500, imprisonment for up to 30 days, or both. This same bill will also subject a second offense to increased penalties regardless of the offense occurring within ten years of the first OWI-related offense.

There is another bill within this plan that calls for a mandatory minimum jail sentence of five years for committing a homicide while driving drunk. Current penalties include imprisonment of up to 25 years if a Class D felony and up to 40 years if a driver is found to have had prior convictions and thus charged with a Class C felony. However, neither one of these penalties have a minimum imprisonment limit.

A public hearing at Wisconsin’s Capitol was held to address several bills, including those mentioned above. The hearing included testimony from families who have lost family and loved ones through the actions of drunk drivers and many of them have called for stricter punishments for under the influence offenders.

In comparison to other states that have already categorized driving under the influence as a criminal offense, this change may seem fairly minor and certainly a long time coming. If you recall one of our earlier posts about states with the most DUIs (States with the Most Drunk Drivers), Wisconsin clocked in at number 4. It is quite possible that part of the reason why their numbers are so high in the survey is that their citizens have less incentive to refrain from getting behind the wheel after a few too many drinks. Republican Representative Jim Ott, who authored the bills, was quoted “I think it would be a deterrent effect. I think if people recognized and were taking drunk driving more seriously in Wisconsin than we have in the past, that it would cause people to not drive drunk and be a first offender.”

According to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation there were 25,734 OWI citations in 2015, 93% of which were found guilty. In theory, categorizing a first offense OWI as a criminal act and processing a drunk driver’s sentence as such should be a deterrent and keep those who are considering the additional drink from climbing behind the driver seat. However, I am fairly certain that there is a significant number of people who didn’t want to deal with civil action and simply plead guilty since the penalty was only a fine. However, if that were to be a criminal mark on your record, people will undoubtedly start to pay a little more attention to the seriousness of the situation. Consequently, criminal defense attorneys can apply their expertise to make sure that the arrests are legitimate before allowing their clients to plead guilty to what is now a criminal action with more serious consequences.

There is also a major question that will need to be addressed should these bills go forward: Is Wisconsin’s court system actually prepared for this change? The bills still have to go through another group of lawmakers before being presented to the floor for a vote, but if they do go through, there are changes to the court system and the entire criminal process that may make things difficult in other ways.

Because even first offenses will be considered criminal, all OWI cases will need to start going through the District Attorney’s office. If there is a lack of sufficient personnel to handle such an increased caseload at the District Attorney’s office, the delays in charges being filed that would result is likely inevitable. Not only that, are the jail systems prepared to handle the increase for if offenders as a result of the new laws?

Time will only tell what happens with the new laws, whether they get passed, and, if so, what effect it will have on deterrence, the court system, and the district attorney’s office.

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Should Bars be Allowed to be Sued when they Serve Alcohol to Someone who Later Causes a DUI-Related Accident?

Thursday, April 11th, 2019

The question has been raised recently several times: Should victims of DUI-related collisions be allowed to sue the bar who served the drunk driver that caused the collision?

Relatives of an entire family that was killed by a drunk driver certainly think so.

Relatives of the Abbas family have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against two Kentucky bars who are accused of over-serving a customer, and against the customer’s estate.

According to the police report, in January of this year, Joey Lee Bailey consumed at least two 22-ounce beers and three double White Russians at the restaurant, Roosters Wings in Georgetown. Bailey then drove to Horseshoes Kentucky Grill & Saloon in Lexington. There he was served at least one beer and four more double White Russians.

After Bailey left the last bar, Lexington police said they received a report of a white pickup truck traveling in the wrong direction on the interstate. Shortly thereafter, a collision was reported.

Bailey had collided with an SUV carrying a family of five who were headed home from a vacation in Florida. Bailey did not survive and unfortunately neither did the occupants of the SUV; 42-year-old Issam Abbas, and Issam’s wife, 38-year-old Rima Abbas, along with their three children, 14-year-old Ali Abbas, 13-year-old Isabella Abbas and 7-year-old Giselle Abbas.

“For the surviving family members, as well as for their many friends left behind, the nightmare and grief caused by that crash will never go away,” said Greg Bubalo, an attorney representing the Abbas family. “By filing the lawsuit, the family hopes to hold those responsible accountable and ensure that this type of tragedy does not occur to another family. This is a second time fatalities have been alleged to have resulted from over-serving alcohol by Horseshoes.” 

According to the coroner, Bailey’s blood alcohol content level was 0.306 percent, more than three times the legal limit in Kentucky (and California) of 0.08 percent.

While I agree with Mr. Bubalo’s first statement, I wholeheartedly disagree with his second.

I’m sorry, but it is not the job of bars and restaurants to babysit customers. It is not their job to make sure they don’t drink and then drive. And it is not their job to monitor whether someone is too intoxicated to drive.

Bailey, an adult, made the decision to have that many drinks and then, after having left the bars, get behind the wheel. What were the bars supposed to have done? Breathalyze Bailey before he left? Were they supposed to take his keys away? Were they supposed to have someone monitor the exit of the parking lot?

Fortunately, thus far, the California legislature feels the same.

Fortunately, California sees it the same.

While other states such as Kentucky may hold a bar liable for injuries caused by a drunk driving customer, in California it is the customer’s willful decision to drink and then drive which is the cause of any subsequent DUI collision. Thus, in California, bars and restaurants are shielded from liability when a customer over drinks, drives away, and causes injury or damage.

California’s “Dram Shop Laws” (California Civil Code section 1714) read as follows:

(b) It is the intent of the Legislature to . . . reinstate the prior judicial interpretation of this section as it relates to proximate cause for injuries incurred as a result of furnishing alcoholic beverages to an intoxicated person, namely that the furnishing of alcoholic beverages is not the proximate cause of injuries resulting from intoxication, but rather the consumption of alcoholic beverages is the proximate cause of injuries inflicted upon another by an intoxicated person.

(c) Except as provided in subdivision (d), no social host who furnishes alcoholic beverages to any person may be held legally accountable for damages suffered by that person, or for injury to the person or property of, or death of, any third person, resulting from the consumption of those beverages.

(d) Nothing in subdivision (c) shall preclude a claim against a parent, guardian, or another adult who knowingly furnishes alcoholic beverages at his or her residence to a person under 21 years of age, in which case, notwithstanding subdivision (b), the furnishing of the alcoholic beverage may be found to be the proximate cause of resulting injuries or death.

As you can see, the laws are different if the customer is under the age of 21. It is the responsibility of bar to ensure that their customers are of legal drinking age before serving them alcohol. People under the age of 21 are legally deemed incapable of making good decisions regarding alcohol use…like the decision not to drive after drinking at a bar.

While California’s law differ from other states with respect to civil liability, like Kentucky, a bar may be held criminally liable if they serve alcohol to an “obviously intoxicated person.”

According to California Business and Professions Code section 25602(a), “Every person who sells, furnishes, gives, or causes to be sold, furnished, or given away, any alcoholic beverage to any habitual or common drunkard or to any obviously intoxicated person is guilty of a misdemeanor.”

Having said that, I’ve been practicing criminal law for 10 year and I’ve never seen California Business and Professions Code section 25602(a) charged. My guess is that it’s difficult to prove that a bar knew that someone was “obviously intoxicated,” as might have been the case with the bars that served Bailey.

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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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Maine Supreme Court Affirms DUI Conviction Even Though Science Suggests Defendant was Involuntarily Intoxicated

Monday, March 25th, 2019

Apparently, some high courts in this country don’t care whether science can show a person is innocent.

Earlier this month, the Maine Supreme Court denied the appeal of a man who sought to introduce the testimony of a medical expert at trial that he suffers from auto-brewery syndrome.

Believe it or not, there is a rare medical condition that causes a person to “brew” alcohol within their body causing them to become intoxicated even though they haven’t had a sip of actual alcohol; hence the name, “auto-brewery syndrome.”

If you know how beer is made, you’ll know that yeast is added to grain extract (which is essentially sugar). When the yeast eats the sugar, it releases carbon dioxide (which creates the carbonation in beer) and alcohol (which gives beer its intoxicating effects). This process is known as fermentation. A person with auto-brewery syndrome produces unusually high levels of yeast in their gastrointestinal tract which, in turns, eats the sugars that a person ingests creating both carbon dioxide and alcohol in the person’s system even though they haven’t actually ingested any alcohol. In some instances of auto-brewery syndrome, the production of alcohol is so much that it can actually cause a person to become legally intoxicated!

I think you can see where I’m going with this. John Burbank claimed to be such a person afflicted with this rare disorder when he was arrested on suspicion of a DUI in 2016 because his blood alcohol content was 0.31 percent, almost four times the legal limit. In preparation for trial, Burbank sought to introduce an expert who would have testified that he suffered from this condition and that the condition caused him to become intoxicated through no fault of his own.

The trial court judge, however, denied the introduction of Burbank’s expert. And without the expert’s testimony, Burbank opted to plead no contest and filed an appeal challenging the denial of the expert’s testimony.

The Maine Supreme Court concluded that the trial court was correct in not allowing the expert to testify, thus affirming Burbank’s DUI conviction.

The Maine Supreme Court justified its conclusion by saying that, although the expert was a P.h.D. in toxicology and physiology, she was merely basing her opinions several articles regarding the condition, but that she, herself, had not worked directly with cases of auto-brewery syndrome or with Burbank and his condition.  Additionally, the court pointed out, that Burbank’s symptoms were different than those who were the subjects of the articles that the expert was relying on.

Bear in mind that auto-brewery syndrome is extremely rare with far less available research and knowledge about it than many other conditions.

The court went on to say that the denial of the expert’s testimony did not amount to a denial of Burbank’s constitutional right to present a defense because, according to the justices, the denial was a “reasonable restriction.”

I don’t know about you, but this sounds like an unreasonable restriction to me. In law, for expert testimony to be admissible, it must be relevant and reliable. It is relevant because it could show that Burbank did not choose to become intoxicated when he drove. The law should not and, in most cases, does not punish people for things they cannot control. The law should only punish people who, through voluntariness and free will, engage in criminal conduct. And it is reliable because, while the expert may not have specific knowledge as to Burbank’s auto-brewery syndrome, it is nonetheless a legitimate and recognized medical condition, albeit with little research on it because of its rarity. People with rare conditions should not be disadvantaged and punished merely because their condition is rare, which is exactly what the Maine Supreme Court is doing.

What’s more, the concurring justice concluded that the defense of involuntary intoxication should not be allowed in DUI cases because “it may invite many ‘I didn’t know there was vodka in my orange juice’ or similar defenses to [DUI]…charges.”

So what?! So what if it invites future defenses? If it is a plausible defense to a crime for which the government can take away someone’s freedom, a defendant should be allowed to assert it. It’s their life on the line, not the judges. And pardon me, but I thought it was the jury’s job to determine if a defense is true or not. If the jury had heard the expert testimony, but still concluded that Burbank did drink and drive, then so be it. At least he was provided the opportunity to defend himself.  

What’s next? Courts not allowing an alibi defense because it could invite many “I was somewhere else” defenses?

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