Virginia May Soon Allow Drunk Driving on Private Property

Thursday, February 22nd, 2018

A Virginia bill, if passed, would allow drunk driving on private property within that state.

The bill, introduced by Virginia Republican Senator Richard Stuart, would change Virginia’s current DUI law to decriminalize drunk driving on private property. Current Virginia law does not differentiate between private and public property when a person is driving under the influence. If passed, the legislation would include in Virginia’s DUI law the language, “This section shall not apply to any person driving or operating a motor vehicle on his own residential property or the curtilage thereof.”

The bill has already passed the State Senate by a vote of 37-3. The bill will now go to the House of Delegates for consideration.

To supporters of the bill, it’s more about being able to do what you want on your own property more than it is about being able to drive drunk.

“I really don’t think it has to do with whether or not people want to be able to drink and drive. They just don’t want to be interfered with on their private property,” said Dana Schrad with the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Polices. “From a law enforcement perspective, we’re very much concerned that we’re sending the wrong message to young people that there would be an acceptable time to drink and drive, that it’s okay, and how do you let them know that that doesn’t translate to public roadways?”

Unsurprisingly, not everyone is on board.

“Is a driver with a .14 BAC (blood alcohol content) operating a motor vehicle across Kings Dominion’s parking lot any less of a threat than if he or she were similarly doing so on a neighboring roadway?” asked Kurt Erickson, president and CEO of the nonprofit Washington Regional Alcohol Program. “Inasmuch, the bill throws Virginia down the slippery slope of bifurcating the state’s DUI laws, effectively communicating that it’s okay to drive drunk here, but not there – a dangerous precedent.”

In California, as it is with most states, drunk driving remains illegal on both private and public property.

The California Vehicle Code states that laws including a California DUI “apply to vehicles upon the highways and elsewhere throughout the State unless expressly provided otherwise.”

In 1992 Ronald Dean Arnold Malvitz was arrested for a California DUI while in a privately locked storage facility and sought to challenge California’s law arguing that it didn’t apply to him since he was on private property.

The California Court of Appeals ruled against Malvitz by looking at the legislative history of California’s DUI law.

Prior to 1982, the California 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 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.

In addition to the Malvitz ruling, 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.”

While drunk driving on private property may soon be allowed in Virginia, I don’t think California will follow suit any time soon.

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Do BAC Limits Discriminate Against Alcoholics?

Thursday, February 15th, 2018

A Texas man who was convicted of a fourth DUI claimed that blood alcohol content limits discriminate against alcoholics.

Ralph Alfred Friesenhahn of San Antonio was convicted of his fourth DUI in 2016 and was sentenced to four years in prison after he rolled his vehicle outside of San Antonio, Texas. A later blood test revealed that Friesenhahn’s blood alcohol content was 0.29 percent, more than three times the legal limit of 0.08 percent.

Although some states are considering lowering the legal limit to 0.05 percent, all states currently have a limit of 0.08 percent.

At trial, Friesenhahn’s attorney motioned the court to dismiss the indictment against Friesenhahn arguing that the state’s legal limit discriminated against alcoholics. Not surprisingly, the judge denied the request and Friesenhahn was convicted of felony driving while intoxicated, the Texas equivalent to California’s “driving under the influence,” and was sentenced to four years in prison due to his prior convictions.

Friesenhahn’s attorney appealed the conviction, once again arguing that the state’s blood alcohol content limit of 0.08 percent discriminated against alcoholics in violation of the right to equal protection guaranteed under the United States Constitution and Texas Constitution. Specifically, she argued that the legal limit ignored the “protected class of alcoholics,” who have a high tolerance to alcohol, to be prosecuted for DUI charges when there is no indication that the alcohol impaired their ability to safely drive a vehicle even though they might be over the legal limit.

Sammy McCrary, chief of the felony division for the Comal County District Attorney’s Office argued that it’s absurd to suggest that the law treats alcoholics differently.

“You’re not being punished for being an alcoholic. It’s the driving that’s the problem,” McCrary said. “It’s making the decision to get into a 3,000-pound vehicle … after drinking.”

The Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals agreed with McCrary with an opinion issued last week.

In denying that Friesenhahn and other alcoholics fall within a “protected class,” the court said that Texas law “provides two alternative definitions of intoxication. The first involves the loss of the normal use of mental or physical faculties; the second involves an alcohol concentration of at least 0.08…The alternative definitions are presented disjunctively…indicating that only one must be satisfied to establish that a person is legally intoxicated. Further, these alternative definitions apply to all persons charged with an intoxication offense…Thus, the alcohol concentration definition of intoxicated allows for a finding of intoxication based on an alcohol concentration of 0.08 or more without showing the loss of mental or physical faculties – whether the defendant is an alcoholic or not. Therefore, there is no classification in the statute that treats any persons, including [Friesenhahn’s] defined ‘class’ of alcoholics, differently than similarly situated persons: the 0.08 alcohol concentration level applies to all offenders prosecuted for DWI.”

In short, the court said that since the law treats all persons equally, there can be no violation of equal protection.

Let Friesenhahn’s case serve as a reminder that, while you may not be “impaired” when driving your vehicle, as long as you’re over the legal limit of 0.08 percent blood alcohol content, you’re putting yourself at risk of a DUI arrest, charge, and possible conviction.

 

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Sobering Up by Sleeping in Your Car

Thursday, February 1st, 2018

It’s not an unlikely scenario when a person leaves a bar too drunk to drive and they decide to sleep in their car until they sober up. Kudos to the person for having the wherewithal to avoid driving when drunk. But if a law enforcement officers happens upon the sleeping bar patron, the question becomes whether they can be arrested, charged, and convicted of a California DUI.

Some states hold that a person can be arrested, charged, and convicted of a DUI if they are in “dominion and control” of their vehicle with the ability to drive the it, even though they may not have actually driven it.

Fortunately, California is not a “dominion and control” state, meaning that prosecutors here in California must prove that the person actually drove their vehicle.

The California Supreme Court in the case of Mercer v. Department of Motor Vehicles in 1991 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 requirement that the defendant drove the vehicle as long as it was voluntary.

Does this mean that a person who is sleeping in a car while under the influence can completely avoid criminal charges? No.

If a person is found sleeping in their car, it is likely that any arresting officer did not see the person drive. Therefore, there may not be any direct evidence for a prosecutor to prove that a person drove. A prosecutor, however, can use circumstantial evidence to prove that the person drove to where they were found while under the influence and then fell asleep.

For example, if an intoxicated person is sleeping in their vehicle in the middle of the road or at the scene of a collision (yes, it happens more often than you would think), then the prosecutor can raise those facts to create the inference that the person had driven. In other words, the prosecutor would argue that it is reasonable to infer that the defendant drove.

On the other hand, if those facts do not exist that would create the inference that the defendant drove then the prosecutor is going to have difficult time proving that the person actually drove the vehicle while being under the influence. This scenario presents itself from time to time as well. But the person may still be charged with another crime such as drunk in public.

In the 1966 case of People v. Belanger, officers found the intoxicated defendant asleep in his vehicle which was located in a parking lot. Although the facts in that case were not enough to create the inference that the defendant had driven to the location while under the influence because he could have driven there sober, drank, and then fell asleep, the officers did arrest the defendant for drunk in public.

The Court concluded that, in order to prevent the defendant from waking up and driving drunk, they needed to arrest him on suspicion of being drunk in public.

Bottom line is that no person should be in a vehicle when they’re intoxicated whether they’ve driven it or not. A prosecutor may still be able to prove a case for driving under the influence or, in the event that they cannot create the inference that person drove, the person is still facing drunk in public charges.

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Lowering Legal Limit to 0.05 Percent BAC

Thursday, January 18th, 2018

It’s been a debate for some time now. Should the legal limit for how much alcohol someone can have in their system while driving be lowered from 0.08 percent to 0.05 percent?  

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine believes so. But before we get into what their newly released report says, let’s put the numbers into context.

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.

Should the legal limit be lowered to 0.05 percent, that means for some, only one drink or less and they would be breaking the law if they get behind a vehicle. According to the U.S. government-commissioned panel of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, that’ll prevent DUI-related collisions and fatalities.

“The plateauing fatality rates indicate that what has been done to decrease deaths from alcohol-impaired driving has been working but is no longer sufficient to reverse this growing public health problem,” said report committee chair Steven Teutsch in a news release from the National Academies. “Our report offers a comprehensive blueprint to reinvigorate commitment and calls for systematic implementation of policies, programs, and system changes to renew progress and save lives.”

Teutsch is an adjunct professor at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Public Health.

The 489-page report also recommends that states significantly increase alcohol taxes, stricter regulation on alcohol advertising, broadening ignition interlock device laws, and stricter laws to prevent the sale of alcohol to people under the age of 21, amongst other things.

Not everyone is on board with the panel’s suggestions.

“[We], along with other organizations focused on traffic safety such as MADD, strongly supports the strict enforcement of the 0.08 BAC level,” said the Distilled Spirits Council in a statement. “Reducing the BAC limit to 0.05 will do nothing to deter the behavior of repeat high BAC drivers who represent the vast majority of drunk driving fatalities on the nation’s roads.”

Just as a reminder, a person can be arrested, charged, and convicted of a DUI if they are “under the influence,” regardless of what their blood alcohol content is. This means that a person can have a 0.04 percent blood alcohol content as long as they cannot drive a vehicle as a reasonable sober person would under similar circumstances.

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Drunk Driving…A Drone

Thursday, January 11th, 2018

As I’m sure you’re aware, the purpose behind DUI laws is to protect the public and drivers themselves from harm caused by an automobile driven while the driver was intoxicated. The same logic can be applied to vehicles other than automobiles, which is why people can be prosecuted for operating other vehicles while intoxicated such as a bicycle, a boat, a horse, a plane, and yes, even a Zamboni. What these “vehicles” have in common is that they are operated by a driver while the driver is in the vehicle. But should the same logic apply to vehicles where the driver isn’t actually in the vehicle like, say…a drone?

New Jersey certainly thinks so.

This week, New Jersey lawmakers approved a ban on operating drones while under the influence. The new legislation, which was approved 39-0 in the State Senate and 65-0 in the State Assembly, would punish pilots of drones who operate while under the influence with up to six months in jail and $1,000 fine.

Although the law doesn’t specify the type nor the size of drone that cannot be operated while intoxicated, it does, however, use the DUI standard for blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent as the legal limit.

According to the text of the bill, “…it is a disorderly persons offense to operate a drone: 1) knowingly or intentionally in a manner that endangers the life or property of another; 2) to take or assist in the taking of wildlife; and 3) while under the influence of intoxicating liquor, a narcotic, hallucinogenic, or habit-producing drug or with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08% or more by weight of alcohol. Disorderly persons offenses are punishable by a term of imprisonment of up to six months, a fine of up to $1,000, or both.”

“The use of drones has increased dramatically in recent years for a variety of purposes,” State Sen. Paul Sarlo told NJ Advance Media in December of last year. “There are many benefits for commercial and recreational purposes but they can also pose threats to safety, security and privacy. The technology has outpaced regulations.”

Although drunk drone driving has yet to become the problem that vehicle DUI’s pose, with the increased availability and use of drones, state lawmakers are seeking to preemptively stamp out problems like that which occurred in 2015 to an off-duty National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency employee. After the employee had been drinking, he flew a two-foot by two-foot “quadcopter” from a friend’s apartment balcony and lost control of it over the White House.

Similar bills have been pocket-vetoed by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, but it is unknown whether he’ll sign the current bill before his second term ends on January 16, 2018.

We’ll also have to wait to see if California follows suit. Who knows, maybe by that time, California will also outlaw drunk driving remote control cars as well.

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