How Do Police Spot Drunk Drivers?

Monday, October 24th, 2016

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.



Is there such a thing as Attempted DUI?

Tuesday, October 11th, 2016

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.”



New IID Law Signed into Law in California

Monday, October 3rd, 2016

California Governor Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 1046 into law this past week making ignition interlock devices mandatory for most DUI offenders.

An IID device is essentially a breathalyzer that is attached to the dashboard of an offender’s vehicle. The device will not the offender to start their ignition if it detects alcohol on the offender’s breath.

The bill was authored by Senator Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo) and extended California’s existing pilot program for another two years which required the installation of an IID for all first time offenders for a period of five months in Alameda, Sacramento, Tulare, and Los Angeles counties.

The bill would require an IID in a number of circumstances; a first-time DUI offense involving injury would require an IID for six months, a first-time non-injury DUI offense would require an IID for six months with full driving privilege if a person does not want to serve a one year suspension with a restricted license, a second-time DUI offense would require an IID for a year, a third-time DUI offense would require an IID for two years, and a fourth or subsequent DUI offenses would require an IID for three years.

“This is a great day for California and this bill will clearly save lives. A week doesn’t go by without us hearing about another death from a drunk driver,” Hill said, noting the recent killing of a 3-year-old in the East Bay, as well as the Southern California accident where a drunk driver killed the 10-year-old daughter of a Hillsborough Elementary School District board member. “It’s needless to say the state should not condone this behavior and we need to do something to stop it.”

Not so surprisingly, Mothers Against Drunk Driving pushed heavily for the bill and applauded its signing last week.

“No parent should have to lose their child to the criminal negligence of a drunk driver — especially when technology exists to prevent such a tragedy,” said MADD board member Mary Klotzbach, whose son Matt was killed by a drunken driver in 2001, in a statement.

Opponents of the bill, including Sarah Longwell, executive director of the American Beverage Institute, argue that California should focus its resources on higher risk, multiple DUI offenders rather than first and second-time offenders. Other complaints of opponents are that the bill undermines a judge’s discretion in sentencing DUI offenders and that the IID requirement is expensive to implement and enforce.

“Our argument is there’s a hard-core population of offenders who are out there habitually driving at extreme intoxication levels. Let’s … focus our resources on that hard-core population, make sure they’re complying,” Longwell said. “We think ignition interlocks can absolutely be a useful tool in fighting drunk driving, it’s about at what level do you expand these mandates and at what point is it a diminishing return?”

The bill will go into effect January 1st of 2019 and last until 2026 unless the California Legislature extends or modifies is.

The typical cost of an IID runs between $60 and $80 per month for maintenance and calibration with a $70 to $150 installation fee.


Do “Dominion and Control” DUI Laws Incentivize Drunk Driving?

Monday, September 12th, 2016

Despite what some think, drunk driving doesn’t necessarily involve driving. In some states a person can actually be arrested, charged and convicted of drunk driving even when the person didn’t drive their vehicle. Such states have what are called “dominion and control” DUI laws. Under “dominion and control” DUI laws, if a person is intoxicated and have dominion and control of their vehicles with the mere ability to drive, they can be arrested, charged, and convicted of that state’s DUI laws.

Simply put, “dominion and control” DUI laws create the possibility of someone getting arrested, charged, and convicted of a DUI when they’re trying to sober up in their vehicle and have absolutely no intent to drive.

Having said that, the question arises, “Do ‘dominion and control’ DUI laws give people incentive to actually drive drunk?”

This question is currently being asked by law makers in New Jersey.

Steve Carrellas, director or government and public affairs for the New Jersey chapter of the National Motorists Association, considered the repercussions of such a scenario.

“But then they’ll say, ‘Well, I have more of a chance of getting arrested doing the right thing than I do attempting to drive home, so I’m going to drive home.’ What a mixed message,” said Carrellas.

“I think it has to be looked to on a case-by-case basis,” said New Jersey Assemblyman John McKeon.

McKeon says it appears the law needs redefining.

“I’m going to consider it now that this topic is swirling around and there seems to be a lack of consistency. I’m going to do it in an intelligent way, though. We’ll have special hearings in the Legislature and hear what law enforcement has to say, hear what attorneys have to say that specialize in that field and try to come up with something that’s consistent,” he said.

Carrellas and McKeon are right to question the law. Lawmakers, be it the courts or our legislators, have a duty to create laws to deter bad behavior and not punish good behavior. First off, we don’t want to punish people who deliberately attempt to avoid driving drunk by sleeping it off in the car. And we most certainly don’t want to give incentive people to drive drunk.

Fortunately, we here in California don’t have that problem. California is not a “dominion and control” DUI law state. In California, the law requires that a person actually drive a vehicle. In 1991, the California Supreme Court in the case of Mercer v. Department of Motor Vehicles held that the word “drive” in California’s DUI law means that the defendant volitionally and voluntarily moved the vehicle. The court has held that even a “slight movement” is enough to meet the element of driving.


Marijuana Legalization and the California DUI

Monday, September 5th, 2016

It would not be a surprise to many if California was the next state to legalize recreational marijuana with Proposition 64. If approved, California would follow the heels of Alaska, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, and the District of Columbia. California is among five states to vote on the legalization of 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.

In 2010, voters failed to pass Proposition 19, which would have legalized recreational marijuana, by a 53.5% majority of vote. So do California voters have the same sentiment six years later? Current polls show support for the passing of Proposition 64 by 60% or more, making it the initiative most likely to pass on the ballot.

Since Proposition 64 is likely to pass, it would be appropriate to discuss how it might affect California DUIs and California DUI law.

California Vehicle Code section 23152(e) makes it illegal to drive a vehicle while under the influence of drugs including marijuana. Unlike California’s DUI of alcohol law, there is no legal limit for marijuana, or more specifically, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) the psychoactive component of marijuana. Therefore, a person can only be arrested and convicted of a marijuana DUI if the ingestion of marijuana impairs a person’s ability to drive a vehicle as a sober person would under similar circumstances.

To prove that a person is driving under the influence of marijuana, a prosecutor can use officer observations of driving patterns, observations during the traffic stop, performance on field sobriety tests, and the presence of THC in any blood test done.

Since “under the influence” is an extremely subjective standard, it is often very difficult to prosecute DUI of marijuana cases. This is especially true if the driver refused to perform the field sobriety tests and/or the officer did not observe driving that would be indicative of someone who is under the influence of marijuana.

If proposition 64 is passed, law makers could seek some sort of per se limit for how much THC can be in a person’s blood while driving. Several states have set a per se limit of five nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood. Colorado, has set a five nanogram per milliliter of blood limit to allow for the presumption that a person is “under the influence.” Unfortunately, current per se limits for THC, however, are an inaccurate measure of how impaired a person is.

Unlike alcohol, THC is fat soluble and remains in a user’s system long after they have ingested the marijuana, sometimes by several weeks. This creates the possibility of being arrested with five nanograms of THC in the system weeks after a person has smoked marijuana and well after the “high” is gone. Yet, because the THC is present, a person can either be arrested or, in Colorado, presumed to be under the influence.

In June of last year, Cannabix Technologies Inc., a Vancouver based company announced the testing of a prototype marijuana breathalyzer. The company says that the breathalyzer will be able to test whether a person has ingested alcohol within the past two hours. Although the machine will not test for a quantitative amount of THC, it will provide a timeframe for marijuana usage, which is a better indicator of impairment that nanograms of THC in a person’s blood.

In April of this year, the California state legislature awarded UCSD’s cannabis research center $1.8 million to study THC impairment and develop an accurate roadside test for marijuana impairment.

While an accurate test for marijuana impairment may be in the offing, nothing yet exists to provide lawmakers with the ability to create an accurate per se level. Until that happens, which may be before pot shops open up in January of 2018 if Proposition 64 is passed, law enforcement and prosecutors will have to continue to rely on California’s flimsy standard of “under the influence.”