Tag Archives: DUI Case

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.”

 

 

Tractor Pulls and Alcohol Pulls: Drunk Driving on Private Property

The urban dictionary defines an alcohol pull as “taking a swig of alcohol, directly from the bottle.” This type of alcohol consumption usually leads to some wild stories.

Tractor pulling, on the other hand, is a competitive motorsport in which modified farm tractors, modified tractors or trucks drag a metal sled along a prescribed course. Unfortunately, not everyone can afford the expenses of the “world’s heaviest motorsport.” This is why low-stakes, private back road to an empty farm field, truck pull competitions also make for wild stories.

Is drunk tractor pulling reckless and dangerous like drunk driving? Absolutely.

Is it illegal? Not necessarily because most of the time, it is done on that private back road or that private farm field.

The DUI laws of all states prohibit driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol on public streets and highways. But whether you can get a DUI for operating a vehicle while drunk on private property depends on what state you live in and the type of private property that you are occupying.

Private Property – Open to the Public

Some states have expansive DUI statutes to include driving under the influence anywhere in the state. These statutes make no distinction between driving on public and private property, and courts often find DUI laws apply to both. For example, both Kentucky and Mississippi’s DUI laws say it’s unlawful to drive under the influence anywhere within the state.

Current California Vehicle Code 23152 prohibits a person to drive a vehicle while under the influence, without any reference to location. However, before its amendment in 1982, the law prohibited driving under the influence while driving on California highways or other areas “open to the general public.”

Similar to California’s pre-1982 law, Texas law states that it’s illegal to drive in a “public place” while intoxicated. Texas law goes further to define a public place as “any place to which the public or a substantial group of the public has access.” The definition includes streets, highways, and “common areas” of schools, hospitals, apartment houses, office buildings, transport facilities, and shops. It follows then that you can get a DUI on private property.

In 1982, however, the California legislature removed any language referring to the specific locations where a person could be arrested for a DUI. Courts subsequently concluded that it was the intent of the legislature that, by removing that language, the law prohibiting drunk driving could extend to anywhere in California that could pose a danger to the public, including some private property.

Private Property – Not Open to Public

The practical effect of California’s current DUI law means that a person can get a DUI even if they are on land not designated as a public road.

While law enforcement can issue citations for DUI on lands other than highways that are open and accessible to the public it cannot issue citations for DUI on private lands under the immediate control of the owner or his or her agent where permission is required and has been granted to operate a motor vehicle.

However, if the land is accessible to the public and is not within the immediate control of the owner, you can still be cited for DUI. This essentially gives the police the authority to arrest and charge you with driving under the influence in the parking lot of your favorite restaurant or nightclub.

Would hosting a truck pulling competition on private property where people are drinking fall under the private property exception? It is rather unlikely that a person would be able to defeat a DUI charge in this situation given the nature of the activity. But it would also seem as though it would depend on whether the “competition” was open to the public, even if it is on private property. Perhaps a DUI charge stemming from a competition on private property would be better fought if the officer did not have the authority to enter the property in the first place.

Although it is less likely that you will be stopped by an officer on private property than on a public road, California DUI laws are far-reaching and are intended to prevent people from creating a risk to themselves or others. Laws like these have started to gain popularity because of accidents on rural or remote private property. In Arkansas, for example, the House greenlighted a new piece of legislation that would give the authorities the right to test blood alcohol levels of farm equipment drivers if injury or death occurs as a result of a farming accident. In Iowa, a driver can be arrested on the charge of “Operating While Intoxicated.” While it is the functional equivalent to California’s “Driving Under the Influence,” the use of the word “operating” instead of “driving” is broader and applies to the operation of any motorized vehicle on any type of land, public or private.

In California, DUIs carry strict consequences. It is important to consider that a situation like the one described above might be considered an aggravating factor. Aggravating factors include, but are not limited to, reckless driving, excessive speeds, threat of great injury to others, and property damage. These considerations can warrant an even greater punishment.

While it is not advisable to engage in dangerous activities like those listed above, sometimes mistakes happen. If you find yourself fighting a DUI battle related to what has been discussed here, it is important that you not only know your rights but that you find a knowledgeable attorney who can help you navigate such an intricate area of law.

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.”

 

Big Surprise: Breathalyzers are Inaccurate

I’ve been saying and writing about it for years; breathalyzers are inaccurate. Now, The New York Times, in a bombshell report confirmed exactly that.

According to the report, “The Times interviewed more than 100 lawyers, scientists, executives and police officers and reviewed tens of thousands of pages of court records, corporate filings, confidential emails and contracts. Together, they reveal the depth of a nationwide problem that has attracted only sporadic attention.”

With so much at stake, including jail, you’d think that there would be more than mere “sporadic attention.”

Yet, the report found numerous inconsistencies with maintenance procedures of breathalyzer machines, inconsistencies within the machines themselves, and an over reliance on inaccurate data produced by breathalyzers.

In Colorado, for example, police had continued using a chemical solution that had long been expired when prepping the machines. The expired solutions caused inaccurate results. In another example, a former manager created his own chemical solution inconsistent with the standard chemicals used in the solution.  In some instances, there were no standards on how to prepare and operate the machines.

The report also found that the manufacturing process of the breathalyzer machines also create inaccuracies. For example, testing revealed that some machines produced a result even though the software programed into the machine occurred. Some tests revealed that accuracy of reading was affected by external factors such as the temperature of a person’s breath, whether they’ve consumed breath mints, or whether they’ve recently brushed their teeth, to name a few.

Despite the known inaccuracies, breathalyzer machines continue to often be the deciding factor in a DUI conviction.

In 2013, the California Supreme Court held that, although breathalyzers are generally inaccurate, scientific evidence challenging the accuracy of breathalyzers in California is not admissible as evidence in DUI trials.

The holding comes from the 2007 DUI stop of Terry Vangelder. Vangelder was stopped for speeding in San Diego. Although having admitted to consuming some alcohol, Vangelder passed field sobriety tests. Vangelder then agreed to a preliminary screening alcohol test (an optional roadside breathalyzer) which indicated that Vangelder’s blood alcohol content was 0.086 percent. Based on that, Vangelder was arrested and transported to the police station where he submitted to a chemical breath test (a required post-arrest breathalyzer). This breath test showed a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent. Vangelder then submitted to a blood test which indicated that his blood alcohol content of 0.087 percent.

At trial, Vangelder called Dr. Michael Hlastala, a leading authority on the inaccuracies of breathalyzers.

“They are (inaccurate),” Dr. Hlastala testified before the trial judge. “And primarily because the basic assumption that all of the manufacturers have used is that the breath that [is] measured is directly related to water in the lungs, which is directly related to what’s in the blood. And in recent years, we’ve learned that, in fact, that’s not the case.”

The judge however, did not allow the testimony and Vangelder was found guilty. Vangelder appealed and the appellate court reversed the decision in 2011. San Diego City Attorney, Jan Goldsmith, then appealed the appellate court decision arguing that such testimony would undermine California’s a per se law making it illegal to drive 0.08 percent blood alcohol content or higher.

Unfortunately, the California Supreme Court sided with Goldsmith.

“[T]he 1990 amendment of the per se offense was specifically designed to obviate the need for conversion of breath results into blood results — and it rendered irrelevant and inadmissible defense expert testimony regarding partition ratio variability among different individuals or at different times for the same individual,” Chief Justice Tani Gorre Cantil-Sakauye wrote for the court. “Whether or not that part of expired breath accurately reflects the alcohol that is present only in the alveolar region of the lungs, the statutorily proscribed amount of alcohol in expired breath corresponds to the statutorily proscribed amount of alcohol in blood, as established by the per se statute.”

The Court went on to say that, “Although Dr. Hlastala may hold scientifically based reservations concerning these legislative conclusions, we must defer to and honor the legislature’s reasonable determinations made in the course of its efforts to protect the safety and welfare of the public.”

Simply put, the California Supreme Court is willfully ignoring scientific evidence simply because the legislature was well-intentioned.

Although drivers can no longer challenge the accuracy of breathalyzers in general, a driver who has been arrested for a California DUI can still challenge the accuracy of the specific breathalyzer machine used on them.

 

DUI Stop After an Anonymous Tip

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).