Could DUI Fines be on the Upswing?

Wednesday, March 6th, 2019

In a previous post, we covered potential costs of a DUI. That was based on our current understanding of California DUI law. However, Mississippi may be a trendsetter to legislatures throughout the country in increasing the fines and fees associated with a DUI arrest and conviction.

The Mississippi House of Representatives just passed House Bill 1445 which would essentially double the fine for DUI violations. The bill, which calls for the increase of the general fund amount for implied consent law violation, also known as driving under the influence, would, according to state assessment, increase the current fine of $243.50 to $493.50. The funding that is raised with the increase in fines would be used to support trauma care in the state.

During the House floor debate on the proposed law, Rep. Greg Haney (R-Gulfport) asked, “Are we doing this to just raise money or is it for safety?” Rep. Donnie Scoggin (R-Ellisville) admitted that it was a little of both.

Scoggin supported this answer with information and a little bit of history about the state’s trauma care system. The state of Mississippi’s statewide trauma care system was instituted in 1998 after the then-Governor Kirk Fordice and Lieutenant Governor Ronnie Musgrove received severe injuries in separate car crashes. According to the state’s Department of Health, as of Nov. 9th, 2018, there were 86 designated and participating hospitals in the Mississippi Trauma System of Care, with the University of Mississippi Medical Center the only Level 1 trauma hospital in the state.

Scoggin says that the fine wouldn’t fully fund trauma care in the state. However, the increase would bring it up to about three-quarters. He further stated that the original trauma funding bill from the mid-1990s actually listed the DUI fee at $500, but was reduced to its current $243.50.

A bill in 2017, had set the amount from the state’s general fund that could be used for the trauma system at $7,023,197 and reduced the overall spending for trauma care from $40 million to $20 million. Scoggin stated that raising the DUI fine for the purpose of supporting trauma care “…seems to be the right place to do this.”

In an attempt to further support the use of DUI fines for trauma care, Rep. Steve Holland (D-Plantersville) mentioned that crashes that are caused by impaired motorists are responsible for several of the trauma cases in the state.

According to the 2017 statistics by Mother Against Drunk Driving, there were 129 drunk driving deaths in the state of Mississippi and that 19 percent of traffic fatalities were connected to driving under the influence.

Although the lawmakers are attempting to tie drunk driving to the funding of trauma care, personally it seems to be contradictory. The raising of funds is important in making sure that severely injured have the best possible care in order to save lives and it makes sense that if raising a fine could help to support that, they should raise it where they can. However, something like a DUI fine is also imposed in order to dissuade people from breaking that law of driving under the influence. If, by raising the fine, it does what it was intended to do, namely to dissuade drivers from getting behind the wheel under the influence, then essentially, the state has less cases to collect the fine. Which in turn, would mean that the actual amount collect by fines is less than what was initially proposed or considered.

Perhaps it is designed to be a temporary remedy to the bigger issue of how to raise more money for the trauma center. Or perhaps the Mississippi legislature just sees an opportunity to collect from an easy target; DUI defendants.

In any event, if the bill is passed in the Senate and signed by the governor, then it would become effective July 1.

Share

Supreme Court to Decide if Cops Can Draw Blood from Unconscious Driver

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2019

The United States Supreme Court has agreed to hear and decide a case that challenges a Wisconsin law that allows law enforcement to withdraw blood from an unconscious driver that they suspect was driving under the influence.

The case stems from the 2013 arrest of Gerald Mitchell in Sheboygan County, Wisconsin. After receiving reports that the driver of a gray van may have been intoxicated, officer Alex Jaeger pulled Mitchell over. A pre-arrest breathalyzer revealed that Mitchell had a blood alcohol content of 0.24 percent, three times the legal limit. Officer Jaeger then arrested Mitchell and drove him to a hospital to withdraw a blood sample.

By the time Mitchell and officer Jaeger had arrived at the hospital, Mitchell had lost consciousness and could not be woken. While at the hospital, Mitchell appeared to be too intoxicated to answer questions from a blood-withdrawal consent form. Notwithstanding his unconscious state, blood was taken from Mitchell without a warrant and without his expressed consent.

The blood test revealed that Mitchell’s blood alcohol content was 0.22 percent.

At trial, Mitchell challenged the results arguing that the warrantless blood withdrawal amounted to an unreasonable search and seizure in violation of the 4th Amendment. Mitchell’s suppression motion, however, was denied and the jury convicted him of driving under the influence.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court took up the case to address whether implied consent under “implied consent laws” (laws that require a person to submit to a breath or a blood test if they are legally allowed to drive and if law enforcement has probable cause to believe a person is driving under the influence) is constitutionally sufficient to allow a blood withdraw without expressed consent while a driver is unconscious.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court held that, by virtue of Mitchell’s mere possession of a driver’s license, Mitchell had already impliedly provided consent to allow law enforcement to withdraw blood if law enforcement had the probable cause to arrest him on suspicion of driving under the influence. To boot, the court concluded that officer Jaeger had the probable cause to arrest Mitchell on suspicion of driving under the influence, and therefore law enforcement could withdraw blood from Mitchell while he was unconscious.

In its opinion, the court stated, “…we conclude that consent given by drivers whose conduct falls within the parameters of [Wisconsin’s Implied Consent law], is constitutionally sufficient consent to withstand Fourth Amendment scrutiny…” Furthermore, the court concluded that Mitchell, having consumed alcohol to the point of unconsciousness, “…forfeited all opportunity, including the statutory opportunity…to withdraw his consent previously given; and therefore, [Wisconsin’s Implied Consent law] applied, which under the totality of circumstances reasonably permitted drawing Mitchell’s blood. Accordingly, we affirm Mitchell’s convictions.”

The United States Supreme Court is set to hear Mitchell’s case and it could be decided by late June of this year.

In 2016, the United States Supreme Court ruled that it was lawful for states to impose penalties for drunk driving suspects who refused to take a breath test under the state’s Implied Consent law. However, the Court went on to conclude that while their “prior opinions have referred approvingly to the general concept of implied consent laws,” that “there must be a limit to the consequences to which motorists may be deemed to have consented to only those conditions that are ‘reasonable’ in that they have a ‘nexus’ to the privilege of driving.” Thus, Implied Consent laws that punish people who refuse a blood test are too intrusive and, therefore, unconstitutional.

“[If] criminal penalties for refusal are unlawful because they too heavily burden the exercise of the Fourth Amendment right to refuse a blood test, can it really be that the state can outright abolish the very same right?” Mitchell’s attorneys asked.

Mitchell’s attorney’s question is a valid and one that I hope the Court concludes the answer is “no.”

 

Share

Stricter DUI Law Trend Across the U.S.

Monday, January 7th, 2019

Each state has their own traffic laws and has their own driving under the influence laws. Some are stricter than others. That said, until this year, all states have set the blood-alcohol (BAC) level of 0.08 as the per se standard of driving under the influence. DUI law in every state is much more complicated than simply having a BAC limit (see recent article California DUI Law 101, for a recap on DUI law in California), although it is an important number to remember. One state, however, has made the leap to lower the allowed BAC level, making it the strictest in the country. If you are knowledgeable about the history of anti-drunk driving laws in the U.S., you may not be surprised to hear that that state is Utah, which has in the past been a trailblazer for stricter DUI laws in the country.

Utah was the first state to lower the BAC limit from 0.1 to 0.08 back in 1983, and now in 2019, it will be the first state to lower the BAC limit from 0.08 to 0.05. Utah has put this new limit to effect on December 30, right before the New Year festivities. Although the BAC level will change, the punishments for being convicted of a DUI will not. In Utah, that includes suspended licenses and fines over $1,000. Those in favor of the new limit feel that this new lower BAC level will help to deter drivers from drinking before getting behind the wheel. However, this lower limit also means that law enforcement will be casting a wider net and many more people could have their licenses suspended with thousands of dollars in fines, and possibly other penalties. Unlike California, Utah does not have a policy for restricted licenses, which means that in areas with few public transit options, even first-time offenders will have a difficult time adjusting to the penalties of a first-time DUI in Utah.

Although the idea that a lower BAC limit will help to deter those who have had a few alcoholic drinks from getting behind the wheel is well-intentioned, and though there are many state lawmakers who hope that other states will soon follow in Utah’s footsteps, there are still many details that should be addressed in order to ensure that a lower BAC limit law does not unfairly overreach to people who might be sober.

Utah is not the only state to be making changes. Pennsylvania passed legislation in October that took effect on December 23, that created the state’s first felony DUI. Until now, Pennsylvania was one of four states in the U.S. that did not consider elevating a DUI to a felony after multiple DUI convictions. Now with the new law in effect, a third time offender of driving under the influence with a BAC level of 0.16 (twice the legal limit in Pennsylvania) can be charged with a felony. The new law will also consider a fourth DUI offense or higher, with any BAC level or intoxicating substance presence, as a felony.

The new Pennsylvania law also increased the penalties for homicide by vehicle while driving under the influence, increased jail time for DUI’s where there was a prior DUI, and increased the fines and fees for a DUI. In addition, the penalty amount for driving under suspension has been increased. What was previously a minimum $500 fine and up to 60 days in jail for a second offense is now a mandatory minimum of 90 days in jail and a fine of $1,000, with a third offense to resulting with six months in jail and a mandatory $2,500 fine.     

Considering that a majority of the states have already put in place the felony categorization for a DUI following multiple offenses, Pennsylvania is late in the game. However, Pennsylvania had been seeing an annual number of approximately 10,000 alcohol-related crashes and around 300 fatalities. With one source citing about 250,000 repeat DUI offenders in the state, it is no wonder Pennsylvania turned to the trend of stricter DUI laws.

Hopefully enforcement of these new laws will help to promote a safer driving environment for all, but not at the cost of arresting sober people on suspicion of a DUI.

Share

California DUI Law 101

Wednesday, December 12th, 2018

The law surrounding California DUI’s is so expansive and complicated that sometimes it’s worth wild to take a step back and just talk about the basics of a California DUI.

In California, it is illegal to drive with a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent or higher. It is also illegal to drive while under the influence. While every person is different, with a different metabolism and different tolerances, a mere two drinks in an hour can certainly get a driver to a 0.08 percent. Additionally, person is “under the influence” if they cannot operate a vehicle as a reasonable and sober person would have under similar circumstances.

Now, let’s be very clear. A person does not have to be above a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent or more to be charged with a California DUI if they were under the influence. Similarly, a person does not have to be under the influence to be charged with a California DUI if they have a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent or more. Having said that, most people who are caught driving with a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent or higher will be charged with both under California Vehicle Code section 23152(a) and section 23152(b) respectively. Yes, you read that correct. Most people who get a DUI are actually looking at two separate charges.

For example, John is heavy in weight and is an alcoholic. If John drinks four beers in an hour, he may likely have a blood alcohol content of above a 0.08 percent, but he’ll probably not be “under the influence” because he can function as though he were sober. He will still be arrested, charged, and may be convicted of driving with a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent or more under Vehicle Code section 23152(b).

On the other hand, for example, Jane is underweight and very rarely drinks. If she were to have one glass of wine, she may not be above a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent or more, but she may certainly not be able to function as a sober person would. As such, while she cannot be charged with having a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent or higher, she may very well be arrested and charged with driving under the influence under Vehicle Code section 23152(a).

Whether a person is a 0.08 percent or higher, or if they are under the influence, officers have no knowledge of either when they decide to pull someone over. They might suspect that a person is under the influence based on observed driving patterns, but that alone is not enough to arrest a person. An officer must have probable cause to arrest a driver for a DUI. An officer has probable cause when they have trustworthy facts that would lead a reasonable person to believe that the driver was either a 0.08 percent or higher, or that they were driving under the influence.

The key is that the officer must have facts that the driver is DUI before they can make the arrest. The officer can obtain the facts to meet the probable cause standard through observation of driving patterns, statements made by the drive (ex. “I had a few beers with dinner”), smell of alcohol on the driver’s breath, bloodshot and watery eyes, slurred speech, poor performance on field sobriety tests, and failure of a roadside breathalyzer.

Just because these may be what an officer uses to justify a DUI arrest, there are things that drivers can do to limit the amount of “facts” that they give the officer.

Drivers do not need to talk to the officers, nor should they. The 5th Amendment exists for a reason. Use it. Rather than potentially providing incriminating statements and allowing the officer to smell the driver’s breath, the driver should simply invoke his or her 5th Amendment right to remain silent, request their attorney, and then keep their mouth shut.

Drivers do not need to perform the field sobriety tests, nor should they. The officer might threaten arrest if the driver does not perform them, but the driver has that right. Chances are that the officer has already made up his or her mind to arrest the driver. However, by not performing the field sobriety tests, the driver has prevented the officer from obtaining any facts that the driver is impaired.

Lastly, drivers do not need to perform the roadside breathalyzer, nor should they. This test, referred to as a preliminary alcohol screening test or “PAS” test, is optional. That is not to say that a driver will not have to perform any test.

Once a person has been lawfully arrested for a DUI, meaning the officer does have the requisite probable cause to make the arrest, the driver must submit to either a breath test or a blood test under California law. Not doing so can lead to increased penalties with both the court as well as the California DMV.

Speaking of the California DMV, when a person is caught driving with a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent or more, it triggers an action by the DMV to determine whether the driver’s license should be suspended. The driver or their attorney must contact the DMV within 10 days to request a hearing and stop the automatic suspension of the driver’s license. If the hearing is lost, then the person’s license will be suspended, the time of which will be dependent upon prior DUI’s and whether the driver refused the required breath or blood test. If the hearing is won, albeit unlikely, the driver’s driving privileges are saved…for now.

After the arrest, the driver must challenge the DUI in court. If convicted, the driver faces some serious consequences. For a first time DUI, the driver is facing a minimum of $390 in fines, which will increase to about $2,000 after court fees are included, three years of informal probation, a three-month DUI course, additional license suspension time, and a DUI on their criminal record. Now, these are minimums. A driver could face a whole host of other penalties including jail of up to six months.

Since this post is about the basics, I won’t get into the penalties for a second or more DUI, or other penalties for various DUI scenarios.  

Needless to say, even the basics are extremely complicated. A driver absolutely should not try to tackle a DUI case on their own. They should hire an experienced California DUI attorney who has studied California DUI law and who practices it day in and day out. Simply put, having a California DUI attorney can be the difference between going to jail and not.

Share

New Study Finds DUI’s Up 60 Percent Since 2014 Among Veterans

Thursday, November 29th, 2018

According to a new study by the American Addiction Centers, drunk driving among the veteran population is up 60% since 2014.

According to the study’s authors, “Since 2014, the percentage of U.S. vets identified as driving while drunk increased from 1.6 percent to 2.5 percent,” almost a 60 percent hike. The study, after having identified the veteran community as already at risk for excessive drinking, went on to say, “there’s no denying that American veterans contribute to the nationwide epidemic of drunk driving.”

The study further found that drunk driving among veterans occurred most often in California, Kentucky, and Washington D.C., whereas prevalence rates were lowest in Virginia, Alaska, and Utah.

The authors of the study suggest that a cause in the increased drinking habits and prevalence rates of DUI’s amongst the veteran community are from dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression following trauma suffered during active duty.

“The percentage of depressed veterans who at some point have been involved in an episode of binge drinking has increased substantially between 2014 and 2016,” said the study. Over 25 percent of “American veterans who self-identified as depressed” were linked to binge drinking. What’s more, the veterans suffering from depression “are more than twice as likely to be linked with drunk driving” than those veterans without mental health issues.

In addition to the mental health concerns as a contributing factor for the spike in DUI’s amongst the veteran community, a recent survey by the Department of Defense Health Related Behaviors found that one in three active duty military members met the characteristics for hazardous drinking and alcohol used disorder.

Recognizing active military and veterans as a vulnerable portion of the population to alcohol abuse and driving under the influence, the legislature recently amended California Penal Code section 1001.80 to allow military members to participate in a pre-trial diversion program to avoid a DUI conviction.

What is a pre-trial diversion program?

Pre-trial diversion is the process by which a court postpones criminal prosecution to allow a defendant to participate in a program that addresses the underlying root cause of the criminal conduct. If the program is successfully completed, the criminal proceedings halt and the case is dismissed.

Although pre-trial diversion exists for a number of other offenses, they don’t generally apply to DUI’s.

Pre-trial diversion which has been offered to a military member, veteran or active, who has been arrested and charged with a California DUI will involve, at a minimum, a substance abuse course as part of the program. If the program is successful, the military member will avoid a DUI conviction and all of the consequences that come with a DUI conviction.

However, if the court determines that the military member is unsuccessful in the program, criminal proceedings will continue and, if they are convicted, they will be subject to the same consequences as anyone else caught driving under the influence.

Not all veterans are eligible for pre-trial diversion. The Penal Code specifically states that only veterans that may be suffering from sexual trauma, traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, or any other mental health issues as a result of having served in the military.

Share