Can a DUI Attorney Challenge Breathalyzer Results?

Sunday, May 21st, 2017

When people think of a DUI stop, two things immediately come to mind; the field sobriety tests and the breathalyzer. I can tell you without going into much detail here that field sobriety tests are designed for failure. If you would like more details, see many of the previous articles I’ve written on the fallacies of field sobriety tests.

But what about the breathalyzer? Are they inaccurate as well and can the results of a breathalyzer be challenged?

A number of studies have shown that breathalyzers are often inaccurate. That too is a discussion for a different time. But the more important question, since breathalyzers are generally inaccurate, is whether a breathalyzer result can be challenged in court.

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

The ruling stems 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."

Sounds to me like the Supreme Court is willfully ignoring science simply because the legislature was well intentioned. Sounds like flawed logic.

While people can no longer challenge the accuracy of breathalyzers in general, people who are suspected of DUI in California can still challenge the accuracy of the particular breathalyzer used in their case.

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California Law Attempts to Prevent Marijuana Use While Driving

Thursday, January 5th, 2017

As many of you now know, California passed proposition 64 this past November making recreational marijuana use and possession legal. According to Senator Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, and Assemblyman Evan Low, D-Campbell, proposition 64 contains a loophole that they intend to close.

Last week, the legislators introduced Senate Bill 65 which will criminalize smoking marijuana while driving. Although Proposition 64 legalized the recreational use and possession of marijuana, it still made it illegal to have an open container of marijuana in a vehicle. Proposition 64 did not, however, address the use of marijuana while driving according to Hill and Low.

If you recall from previous posts, Hill has been known to introduce legislation aimed at preventing drunk driving. Last year he passed a law requiring ignition interlock devices for convicted drunk drivers who wished to reinstate their licenses.

“I have a real passion for solving our impaired driving in California from substance abuse,” Hill said. “I don’t want to go in a positive direction on one end and open up the door for deaths on the other end.”

One complaint that opponents have to Senate Bill 65 is that it also bans consumption of cannabidiol, the component of marijuana which is often used by those suffering from chronic pain or to alleviate the symptoms associated with cancer. Cannabidiol does not contain THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), which is the chemical in marijuana that causes impairment.

As I see it, another problem with Senate Bill 65, if passed, is that if a person is arrested for driving while smoking marijuana, they will also inevitably be arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence of marijuana. While a person may have been caught smoking while driving, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are “under the influence” of marijuana.

To be under the influence of marijuana, the person’s use of marijuana caused their mental or physical abilities to become impaired such that they can no longer drive a vehicle with the same caution of a sober person, using ordinary care, under similar circumstances.

While police can utilize field sobriety tests, if the person agrees, to assess whether motor skills are impaired, there is no way to determine how “high” a person is after smoking marijuana. As I’ve said in many previous posts, this is different from alcohol where these is a correlation between a person’s blood alcohol content and impairment. No such correlation exists with marijuana.

Therefore, if Senate Bill 65 is passed, a person arrested for smoking while driving not only faces misdemeanor charges under that law, but they can also inevitably expect DUI of marijuana charges as well.

You can be sure I’ll be keeping my eyes on the progress of this one.

 

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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.

 

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Do I have to Do a Breathalyzer During a California DUI Stop?

Monday, August 22nd, 2016

Of all the questions I get about what to do and what not to do during a California DUI stop, the question about whether a person has to give a breath sample after a DUI stop is among the most common of the questions.

Strangely enough, the answer is both “yes” and “no” depending on which breath sample we’re talking about.

When law enforcement pulls someone over, chances are they already think the person is driving under the influence. However, in order to arrest them for a California DUI, law enforcement needs probable cause. This means that the officers must have facts that would lead a reasonable person to believe that the person is driving drunk. In other words, the officers cannot just arrest someone on the hunch that the person is driving while under the influence. They need facts to suggest that the person is actually driving drunk.

The officers get the probable cause, or facts, through their own observations and when the driver performs and fails the field sobriety tests. In addition to the field sobriety tests that people typically think of, there is the preliminary screening alcohol (PAS) test. This is a roadside breathalyzer that is also considered a field sobriety test. And like the other field sobriety tests, the PAS test is optional. If the PAS test shows that a person has alcohol in their system, then the officers have the facts that would suggest that the person is driving under the influence.  

According to California Vehicle Code section 23612(h), the PAS test “indicates the presence or concentration of alcohol based on a breath sample in order to establish reasonable cause to believe the person was driving [under the influence]…[it] is a field sobriety test and may be used by an officer as a further investigative tool.”

The officer who makes the stop, by law, must advise the person that the PAS test is optional. California Vehicle Code section 23612(i) states that “If the officer decides to use a [PAS], the officer shall advise the person that he or she is requesting that person to take a [PAS] test to assist the officer in determining if that person is under the influence. The person’s obligation to submit to a [chemical test under California’s Implied Consent Law] is not satisfied by the person submitting to a [PAS] test. The officer shall advise the person of that fact and of the person’s right to refuse to take the [PAS] test.”

If the PAS test detects alcohol in the person’s system, they’ll likely be arrested for a DUI. Once the person is arrested, they must take a chemical test which can either be a breath or a blood test according to California’s Implied Consent Law.

California Vehicle Code section 23612(a)(1)(A) sets forth the Implied Consent requirement. “A person who drives a motor vehicle is deemed to have given his or her consent to chemical testing of his or her blood or breath for the purpose of determining the alcohol content of his or her blood, if lawfully arrested for an offense allegedly committed in violation of [California’s DUI laws].”

In other words, if you’re licensed to drive in California, you have impliedly consented to give either a breath or a blood sample when you are lawfully arrested on suspicion of a California DUI.

The key word here is “lawfully” arrested. If the officer did not observe any poor driving and the person does not perform any field sobriety tests including the PAS test, the officer may not have the probable cause to arrest the person. And if the officer does not have probable cause that the person is driving under the influence, yet they arrest the person anyways, the arrest is no longer lawful.  

When an arrest is unlawful, all evidence obtained after that arrest, including the results of the chemical test are inadmissible.

As you can see, it can be rather complicated. So simply put, you do not have to take the pre-arrest breathalyzer called the PAS test, but you do have to take a post-arrest chemical test which could include a breathalyzer.

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Supporter of Anti-Drunk Driving Law Charged with DUI with Children in Car

Monday, August 1st, 2016

Stephen Miller, 40, of Pennsylvania was arrested and charged early last month with two counts of driving under the influence, two counts of endangering the welfare of children and various traffic citations. Miller championed Pennsylvania’s “Kevin’s Law,” the name of which honored his son who was killed by a hit-and-run driver suspected of drunk driving. The law increased the penalties for hit-and-run drivers in fatal accidents.

Miller’s son, Kevin, was killed in 2012 after being hit by a driver who fled the scene. It was suspected that the driver, Thomas W. Letteer Jr., 26, was driving under the influence at the time, however never faced charges of DUI because he was not caught until much later.

On June 12th, Miller was stopped because law enforcement spotted his vehicle traveling at night without headlights and unlit tail lights. At the time of the stop, Miller had this two other children in the vehicle, one of which was Kevin’s twin. It was later determined that Miller’s blood alcohol content was more than three times the legal limit at 0.27 percent.

Miller is set to appear on August 17th.

In addition to the penalties for the DUI, Miller is facing 100 hours of mandatory community service and a fine of at least $1,000 under Pennsylvania law.

California, on the other hand, is not as forgiving.

In California, if you are charged with a DUI under California Vehicle Code section 23152 and at the time of driving, you have a minor under the age of 14, you also face an enhancement to the DUI charge under California Vehicle Code section 23572.

In addition to any penalties given for a DUI conviction, if the enhancement is found to be true, the person faces an additional and consecutive 48 hours in a county jail for a first DUI conviction, 10 days for a second DUI conviction, 30 days for a third DUI conviction, or 90 days for a fourth or subsequent misdemeanor DUI conviction.

For other reasons, I’ve said that it is extremely important to hire an experienced California DUI when facing criminal charges. The same absolutely holds true for a California DUI charge with a child endangerment enhancement.

If an experienced California DUI attorney can successfully defend against the underlying DUI charge, the child endangerment enhancement cannot stick nor can a person be punished under it. This is true if the underlying California DUI charge is found to be untrue by a jury after a trial, the charges dismissed, or if the charge is reduced to what is known as a “California wet reckless.”

It should also be noted that drunk drivers who have children in the vehicle at the time of driving can also be charged under California Penal Code section 273(a), otherwise known as California’s child endangerment law. Child endangerment can be charged as either a felony or a misdemeanor when a person places a child under the age of 18 in a situation where his or her heath or welfare can be endangered. If charged with child endangerment, a person faces up to a year in county jail for a misdemeanor and up to six years in a California state prison for a felony.

If a person is convicted of a DUI and child endangerment under California Penal Code section 273(a), they, however, cannot face the DUI enhancement under California Vehicle Code section 23572.

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