Tag Archives: dui arrest

GA Supreme Court Extends DUI Liability to Third Parties

If you have read this blog in the past, you might be familiar with what are known as “dram shop” laws. For those who are not familiar, dram shop laws allow the victims of drunk drivers to civilly sue the establishment that served the drunk driver with alcohol prior to the victim’s injury. Although dram shop laws specifically refer to the suing of restaurants and bars, the question of whether liability, be it civil or criminal, can be placed on any third parties who contribute to a driver’s driving drunk leading to injury has been the center of much debate.

There may, however, not be much of a debate, at least in Georgia. The Georgia Supreme Court issued a ruling this week that allows a victim to sue a third party, non-drunk driver, in a DUI collision as an “active tortfeasor.”

In September of 2016, Lakenin Morris was asked by his cousin, Keith Stroud, to drive his car. Morris agreed, Stroud handed him the keys, and they were off. Both had been drinking. Morris later collided with 18-year-old Alonzo Reid, who was hospitalized. Reid sued both Morris, the driver, and Stroud, who provided the keys to Morris. Reid was awarded $23,000 in compensatory damages, to be split equally between Morris and Stroud, and $50,000 from Morris in punitive damages. The trial court, however, decline to award the $100,000 in punitive damages that Reid was asking from Stroud. The trial court concluded that punitive damages were limited to “active tortfeasors,” or, in this case, the actual drunk driver, Morris.

The Georgia Supreme Court, however, reversed the trial court’s decision by adopting a broad interpretation of the word “active tortfeasor.”

“[Georgia law] does not define the term ‘active tortfeasor,’ but from the beginning…has made a distinction between tort defendants who ‘acted’ and those who ‘failed to act.’ The text thus suggests that an ‘active tortfeasor’ is a defendant who engaged in an affirmative act of negligence or other tortious conduct, as opposed to a defendant whose negligence consist of an omission to act when he is under a legal duty to act,” wrote Justice Michael Boggs in discussing the history of Georgia’s punitive damages laws. Justice Boggs went on to say that it does not matter whether the defendant was the drunk driver, but rather whether Morris’s conduct, at least in part, caused the injury.

In other words, the Georgia Supreme Court concluded that by drinking and giving his keys to Morris, whom he knew was drunk, Stroud was an active tortfeasor who could be subject to punitive damages just as Morris, the actual drunk driver, was.

While some states, like Georgia, continue to expand the reach of their dram shop laws, some states like California remain in their determination that only the person who drove drunk can be held liable for injuries resulting from a DUI.

The California Civil Code specifically states, “It is the intent of the Legislature to…reinstate the prior judicial interpretation…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…[N]o social host who furnishes alcohol 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.”

Although this code section does not specifically address the situation that led to Reid’s injury, you can see California’s view on the matter. This is not to say that California affords full protection to third parties. California still holds establishments civilly liable for injuries resulting from a DUI when the establishment knowingly served alcohol to an underage drinker who drives and causes injury. Additionally, although rarely enforced, establishments can face misdemeanor charges for serving alcohol to “any habitual or common drunkard or to any obviously intoxicated person.”

 

 

New PA Bill to Protect Medical Marijuana Users from Arbitrary DUIs

Pennsylvania, which has legalized medical marijuana, has introduced a bill that would exempt medical marijuana users from the state’s arbitrary per se marijuana DUI law.

Although Pennsylvania legalized medical marijuana in 2016, with dispensaries opening up in the state in 2018, laws still remain on the books that would arbitrarily punish medical marijuana users merely for having THC in their system, even though they are no longer “high.” The new bill aims to close that loophole.

Prior to Pennsylvania’s legalization of marijuana for medical purposes, it was illegal to have any THC in a driver’s system while driving. At the time, the law did not conflict with itself because it was illegal to have any THC in the system because marijuana use, as a whole, was illegal. Thus, it did not matter whether a driver was still high or not; if they had THC in their system, it was illegal because all marijuana use was illegal.

Since the state has now legalized medical marijuana, at a minimum, those laws cannot remain on the books. Otherwise, it is possible for a legal medical marijuana to be arrested, charged, and convicted of a DUI in the state even though they haven’t smoked in days, possibly even weeks, and are perfectly sober when pulled over for that DUI.

 Unlike alcohol, the intoxicating chemical of marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinol or “THC,” can possibly stay in a person’s system for weeks. Also, unlike alcohol, THC levels do not necessarily correspond to how intoxicated or high a person is. Science suggests that when a person has a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent, they typically are at a level of intoxication that would make it unsafe to drive. This is why it is illegal to drive while under the influence and with a 0.08 percent (0.05 in Utah). It is dangerous to society when people drive when they are under the influence, or when their blood alcohol content suggests that they are “under the influence.” No such scientific correlation exists between THC and degree of intoxication from marijuana use.

Therefore, when Pennsylvania legalized medical marijuana, it put every single user of medical marijuana at risk of an arbitrary DUI by not also updating its DUI laws. It was possible for a cancer patient to smoke marijuana on Monday, become sober by Tuesday, remain sober for the rest of the week, and then get arrested for a DUI on Sunday simply because they still had THC in their system (as a result of taking prescribed medicine for cancer!).

Pennsylvania’s new law would require police and prosecutors to prove that a medical marijuana user was actually impaired while driving rather than merely proving that the person had used marijuana sometime in the past.

“We need to ensure that the legal use of this medicine does not give rise to a criminal conviction,” state Sen. Camera Bartolotta (R), who introduced the legislation, said in a statement about her bill. “Patients fought tooth and nail for years to see the use of medical cannabis legalized to treat a variety of terrible health conditions. They should have the peace of mind to know that they will not be punished later for using their prescriptions responsibly.”

Although some states still have per se limit laws for THC, like they do with alcohol (0.08% BAC in all states except Utah where it is 0.05%), a 2019 study, published in the journal Addiction by a team of Canadian researchers, found that drivers who had 2-5 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood (the level of some states’ per se laws) were no more likely to cause a crash than people who had not consumed marijuana.

“Given the very serious consequences of a DUI conviction, my legislation will provide critical protections for medical cannabis patients by ensuring responsible use of their legal medicine does not give rise to a criminal conviction,” said Bartolotta.

My response: It’s about time. Until states can figure out a way link THC levels (or any other quantifiable measure) with intoxication, per se laws DUI laws for marijuana usage in states that have legalized it are unconstitutional.

 

Ignition Interlock Devices and Unlawful DUI Stops

Consider this: It is a nice spring Thursday evening and you decide to meet friends for dinner. After visiting for a few hours, you decide it is time to drive home. On your way, you happen to go slightly over the speed limit and a police officer pulls you over. Upon his arrival to your driver side window, the police officer notices you have an ignition interlock device installed and immediately asks you to step outside the vehicle and starts to conduct a DUI investigation. Despite the fact that you have not had a single drop of alcohol, you are now being subjected to the humiliating process of a field sobriety test. Does the officer have the right to stop your vehicle and conduct a DUI investigation based solely off the fact that your vehicle was equipped with an ignition interlock device?

What is an Interlock device?

An Ignition Interlock Device (IID) is about the size of a cell phone, connects to a vehicle’s ignition, and is capable of determining a person’s blood alcohol content. Once installed, a driver must provide an alcohol-free breath sample before the engine will start. If the IID detects alcohol on the driver’s breath, the engine will not start. Drivers are periodically required to provide new breath samples en route. The International Council on Alcohol, Drugs and Traffic Safety claims that IIDs can result in a 40–95 percent reduction in the rate of repeat drunk driving offenses.

Interlock Laws in California

Pursuant to a relatively new California state law, the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) is conducting a Statewide Ignition Interlock Device (IID) Pilot Program that requires all repeat and all injury-involved driving under the influence (DUI) offenders to install an IID. A first-time DUI without injury will not require installation of an ignition interlock device (at least through the DMV) unless the driver is in one of five pilot counties, which require installation for a first-time offense.

Notwithstanding what the DMV might require, in California, the court, at its discretion, may require that a person convicted of a first DUI offense install an IID their vehicle or vehicles.

IID as a Pretext for a DUI Stop

Under the United States Constitution, law enforcement must have justification before it can initiate a traffic stop or arrest anyone. In the context of a DUI, the level of justification is usually expressed as “reasonable suspicion” for a DUI traffic stop, and “probable cause” for a DUI arrest. In other words, a law enforcement officer must have “reasonable suspicion” that a traffic violation is or was taking place before they can stop a vehicle. “Reasonable suspicion” means that the officer was suspicious that a traffic violation occurred (not necessarily a DUI, because the officers don’t yet have enough facts to stop based on DUI alone) and they can articulate why their suspicion was reasonable.

Most of the time, officers have more than reasonable suspicion to stop a vehicle for a traffic violation because the officer actually witnesses a traffic violation occur, such as speeding or running a red light. However, once a stop is made, the officer must have probable cause to arrest a driver for a DUI. Probable cause means that the officer has reasonable and trustworthy facts that the driver is driving under the influence.

An officer should able to determine if a person has a DMV-required IID installed in their vehicle by scanning a license plate. But that, by itself, doesn’t even warrant the reasonable suspicion that the person has done anything wrong. Remember, that officers need, at a minimum, reasonable and articulable suspicion that a person is driving drunk. Merely knowing that a driver has an IID in his or her car doesn’t mean that the driver is currently drunk (in fact, quite the opposite), and therefore can’t be the officer’s reasonable suspicion needed to make the stop.

From the point the stop is initiated, the law enforcement officer is trying to obtain the requisite probable cause so that they can arrest the driver at the end of the stop on suspicion of DUI. Some of the ways that the officer obtains that probable cause is through observing the signs of intoxication through the driver’s eyes, breath, and speech, observing poor performance on field sobriety tests, and obtaining a BAC reading which would indicate that the driver had alcohol in their system (recall that the pre-arrest roadside breathalyzer is optional).

It goes without saying that if an officer is aware a driver has an IID in their car, the police are going to want to pull that driver over. While courts have held that police can have an ulterior motive for pulling someone over (such as a DUI), the officer must still have the reasonable suspicion that a crime occurred, beyond merely knowing that an IID is in the driver’s car.

 

Law Requiring Impound of Drunk Drivers’ Vehicles Struck Down

At least some courts are getting it right.

Late last year, the Washington State Supreme Court struck down 2011 state legislation that required the mandatory impound of vehicles when their owners were arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence, otherwise known as “Hailey’s Law.”

Back in 2009, a woman was stopped in a parking lot for a minor traffic infraction. When the Washington State Trooper approached her vehicle, he found that she was driving without a valid license, had previous DUI offenses, did not have a required ignition interlock device, and appeared to be impaired. The trooper arrested her and took her in to the Whatcom county jail.

Since there was no third part available at the scene to drive the vehicle and wait for the woman, the officer chose to lock the car and leave. This is typical if the car is in a safe location and not impeding traffic.

At the county jail, the woman took a breath test and that determined her blood alcohol content to be above the legal limit. For unknown reasons, she was not booked into the jail, and the trooper drove the woman back to her residence, gave her back her keys with a warning to not drive again until she was sober. Common practice was to drive suspected DUI drivers to a public place like a restaurant or store to let them sober up. Unfortunately, the officer made a mistake.

After the trooper left, the intoxicated woman called a cab and returned to her car’s location. She attempted to drive her car home but crossed the centerline and crashed into another vehicle. The victim, Hailey Huntley, would spend over a month in the hospital as a result of multiple injuries, including a collapsed lung, dislocated hip, and a fractured right leg. Later, the DUI driver was found to have had a blood alcohol concentration higher than what she had earlier at the jail.

Following the accident, multiple rules changed. Administrators at Whatcom county quickly made it mandatory for DUI arrestees to be jailed, and other steps were set in motion to create laws that would prevent similar accidents from happening in the future.

As a result, Washington’s Mandatory Impound Law went into effect two years after the crash. It reads, “In order to protect public safety and to enforce the state’s laws, it is reasonable and necessary to mandatorily impound the vehicle operated by a person who has been arrested for driving or controlling a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.”

The state legislature expressly stated the purpose of Hailey’s law was to shift the primary purpose for impounding the vehicle of drunk drivers from avoidance of traffic obstructions to the safety of the public. Additionally, it stated that the law was meant to remove the arresting officer’s discretion as to whether the vehicle should be left of impounded.

A 2018 DUI arrest, and subsequent vehicle impound cast doubt on the constitutionality of Hailey’s Law.

Joel Villela was pulled over for speeding, and when asked to take a breathalyzer test after the officer smelled alcohol on his breath. When he refused the test, he was arrested on suspicion of DUI. Although there were other passengers at the time of the arrest, Villela’s vehicle was impounded in accordance with Hailey’s Law. When the car was searched after the impoundment, law enforcement found sandwich bags, digital scales, pipes, and other paraphernalia related to potential drug dealing. Upon a search of his person, the police found cocaine in Villela’s possession. A charge of possession with intent to deliver controlled substances was added to his list of charges.

Villela’s attorney argued that the seizure of Villela’s car was unconstitutional because Hailey’s Law was the only basis for the search of Villela’s vehicle, when the Constitution required a warrant based on probable cause. As a result, he requested that the contents of the search be suppressed as evidence. The trial court agreed, and eventually the State Supreme Court agreed as well.

“The trial court below found that [Hailey’s Law] violates our constitution because it requires what the constitution allows only under limited circumstances. We agree,” the Court stated in its opinion. “Our constitution cannot be amended by statute, and while the legislature can give more protection to constitutional rights through legislation, it cannot use legislation to take that protection away.”

The Constitution, both state and federal, exist to protect individual rights, including the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, and Hailey’s law allowed officers to engage in unreasonable searches and seizures. Although it might seem like the easy and “right” thing to do when someone has driven drunk, individual rights can never and should never be ignored in the name of “justice.”

 

The Costs of a California DUI

Often the new year brings with it the need to re-assess finances, including money that might be stashed away for an unexpected “rainy day,” and I thought it might be worth discussing the unexpected expense of a California DUI arrest.

For some, the prospect of jail isn’t as scary as the costs that might be associated with a California DUI. Personal preference aside, the costs are by no means trivial. For many, the monetary costs of a DUI are just as much of a deterrent as the threat of jail itself. So, let’s break it down, but before I do, let me begin by saying the following is general information about basic first-time California DUI cases without injuries or other aggravating circumstances. It goes without saying that California DUI cases are unique with unique circumstances and, as such, the costs associated with different aspects of a DUI case will vary.

First of all, if you can afford an attorney, hire one. Doing so will help your chances at the best possible outcome for the case. However, admittedly, attorneys are not cheap. If you cannot afford one, request the public defender at the first court appearance. Almost all private DUI attorneys charge on a flat fee basis. Usually the flat fee is for pre-trial, and only once a plea deal cannot be reached does a case go to trial. Then the attorney can charge a separate fee for trial should a case make it to trial. Some attorneys do not bifurcate these fees.

Pre-trial is the phase of the court proceedings where the attorney obtains the evidence, makes motions (if applicable), and negotiates a plea deal with the prosecutor. For this stage, attorneys can range between $1,000 and $7,500 depending on the complexity of the case, the experience of the attorney, and the size of their office. There’s no right or wrong number. Pay what you can afford and, generally, with quality comes price. Having said that, do your homework. Make sure that you actually consult with the attorney first and that you’re comfortable with them. Make sure that they specialize in DUI defense. Often, the lower-cost attorneys are the ones who don’t have much experience defending DUI cases.

During pre-trial, it may be recommended that a blood re-test be conducted. You, not the attorney, bears the responsibility of paying for this expense and it’ll run several hundred dollars, depending on what the blood is being tested for. You attorney may also recommend hiring an expert to consult regarding the blood re-test results. This too can cost several hundred dollars.

Most cases settle with a plea deal of some fashion, which means that very few cases actually make it to trial (which is why most DUI attorneys charge separately for pre-trial and trial). For those who wish to push their case to a trial, they can expect anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000 to conduct the trial. Since most DUI’s don’t ever make it to trial, I won’t say anything more about trial costs.

Let’s stop here and reflect on what the cost will be to either prevent a DUI conviction or do damage control and take a plea deal. I do this because the costs following a DUI conviction are just as intimidating as the costs to try and prevent the conviction.

The fine for a DUI is a minimum of $390 up to a maximum of $1,000. Having practiced DUI defense now for close to 10 years, I can say that the fine for most DUI’s ends up being $390 to $500. This number, however, does not include the “penalties and assessments” that get added to the base fine mentioned above. Think of these as “court taxes.” The amount varies from courthouse to courthouse and many judges don’t even know how the court calculates the penalties and assessments. However, as a rule of thumb, I tell people to expect about $2,000 give or take a couple hundred of dollars.

The sentence for a first-time DUI will almost inevitably result in the driver having to take a DUI class, if not for the court, quite possibly to get their license back from the DMV. For a first-time DUI, a person is looking at either a three, six, or nine-month DUI course, depending on the severity of the case. Although the costs vary depending on the length of the course and the program that you take the course from, people should expect to pay between $600 and $1,800 for the DUI course.

Sometimes, a driver convicted of a California DUI will have to pay the arresting agency a booking fee. This ranges between $200 and $400.

When the driver is eligible to have their license reinstated, the reinstatement fee to the DMV is $125. (You can read previous posts about the license suspension following a DUI)

Lastly, a person must consider the ancillary costs of the increase in car insurance. Most people forget to include this figure in their estimations of total DUI costs because it’s not directly related to the courts. The estimate cost of car insurance over 10 years is approximately $10,000.

DUIs can be avoided. Going into 2020, do not let a California DUI be the thing that uses up your rainy day fund this year.