Tag Archives: DUI

Motion to Suppress Evidence in a California DUI

From a prosecutor’s perspective, presenting a successful DUI case is a bit like putting together a puzzle. The prosecutor must bring together different “pieces” of evidence – breath or blood test results, the driver’s performance during field sobriety tests, and statements made by the driver during the investigation – in order to secure a conviction. If someone were to take away some or all of these pieces of evidence, the prosecutor’s job becomes much more difficult – if not impossible.

The way in which a person charged with DUI removes these puzzle pieces from the prosecutor’s case is through a motion to suppress evidence. This is a legal motion that asks the court to keep illegally-obtained evidence from being used in court against the person charged with DUI. Filing, presenting, and successfully using these motions may have a significant impact on the outcome of a California DUI case.

What is the Motion to Suppress Evidence?

Motions to suppress evidence in DUI cases are permitted by California Penal Code 1538.5. This section says, “A defendant may move … to suppress as evidence any tangible or intangible thing obtained as the result of a search or seizure.” “Tangible” things would include evidence such as alcohol containers, photographs, or receipts from bars, and the printouts or results of alcohol tests. “Intangible” evidence would include statements made by the accused driver or the statements of police officers or witnesses.

California Penal Code 1538.5 permits defendants to file motions to suppress where law enforcement officers obtain tangible or intangible evidence through illegal searches and seizures. Examples of illegally-obtained evidence in DUI cases can include:

  • Statements from the driver obtained in violation of Miranda
  • A driver’s field sobriety tests or evidence found in their car if the officer had no reasonable suspicion to stop the driver’s car
  • Breath or blood test results from samples that were illegally collected or obtained following an unlawful arrest
  • Searches or seizures based upon a defective warrant

One motion to suppress may cover only one specific piece of evidence, such as the driver’s blood test results. Alternatively, one motion may encompass many items of evidence, like “all evidence obtained after and stemming from” the driver’s illegal arrest.

Motions to suppress evidence are designed to discourage unlawful, unconstitutional, and unconscionable behavior by law enforcement officers during investigations. Thus, a motion to suppress may be successful, for example, even if law enforcement had a valid warrant to search or seize evidence but acted unlawfully in collecting that evidence.

What is the Process to File a Motion to Suppress Evidence in California?

While someone could move to suppress evidence in the midst of their trial when the prosecutor tries to present the evidence to the judge or jury, the better practice is to seek to suppress evidence earlier, ahead of trial. The person accused of DUI will file their motion with the court hearing their case. The motion will need to describe the evidence the person wants suppressed and the factual and legal reasons why such evidence should be suppressed.

Once filed, the motion will be set for a hearing with the court, meaning the judge on the case, the prosecutor, and the defense attorney. At this hearing, if any evidence was obtained without a warrant, it is the prosecutor’s responsibility to show the court that the evidence complained about in the motion was lawfully obtained. The driver who filed the motion to suppress is not required to prove that the evidence was unlawfully obtained, unless a warrant was used to obtain the evidence.

The judge will rule on the motion rather quickly; most times, the judge will announce their ruling at the conclusion of the hearing while both the prosecutor and the accused (and their defense attorney) are still in court. If the motion is granted, the evidence described in the motion will be suppressed, and the prosecutor will not be able to discuss or introduce the suppressed evidence at any future hearing or at trial

How can a Motion to Suppress Lead to Acquittal?

What happens next depends on how important the suppressed evidence is to the prosecutor’s case. A suppressed incriminating statement (a driver’s statement that they “drank six beers about an hour ago”) or suppressed alcohol test results, may make it impossible for the prosecutor to prove the driver was driving while impaired. As a result, the prosecutor may need to change the DUI charge to a less serious offense or dismiss the DUI charge altogether. Remember that puzzle that the prosecutor is trying to put together? It’s going to be that much more difficult to put the puzzle together while missing such big pieces.

What Happens if the Court Denies a Motion to Suppress?

If a person’s motion to suppress evidence is denied, then that means that the prosecutor can discuss and admit the evidence in question. While the person may request the court reconsider their motion to suppress, the court will not likely change its mind absent new, binding law or significant and newly-discovered facts.

If the person is eventually convicted of DUI, they may appeal their conviction to an appellate court. There, they can argue that the trial court was incorrect in denying the motion to suppress. If the trial court should have granted the motion and suppressed the evidence, the appellate court may send the case back to the trial court with appropriate instructions.

Some Final Thoughts

As can be seen, a motion to suppress evidence can be a powerful tool in defending oneself against DUI charges in California. Knowing what evidence should be suppressed in a DUI case takes legal knowledge and experience. While a driver with no legal background could learn how to write and file a motion to suppress evidence, they would likely fail to identify evidence that could be suppressed or would miss legal precedents that would help their case. Bottom line: An experienced California DUI lawyer can help drivers facing charges protect themselves and their rights from overzealous police officers and prosecutors.

 

California Driver Charged with Murder after DUI-Involved Street Racing Death

Back in 2012, Louie Robert Villa, of Santa Ana pleaded guilty to a California DUI. When Villa was sentenced on the DUI he was told by the judge, “You are hereby advised that being under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or both, impairs your ability to safely operate a motor vehicle. Therefore, it is extremely dangerous to human life to drive while under the influence or alcohol or drugs, or both. If you continue to drive while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or both, and, as a result of that driving, someone is killed, you can be charged with murder.”

The advisement, known as the Watson advisement, is routinely read to people who are pleading guilty to a California DUI by the judge in their case.

Prior to the landmark case of People v. Watson in 1981, a DUI suspect could only be charged with manslaughter if their drunk driving led to the death of someone. To be charged with murder, a person had to intend to kill someone else to be charged and convicted of murder. However, the California Supreme Court said that only “implied malice” needed to be present for someone to be charged and convicted of murder in the context of a DUI. This meant that a person need not have actual intent to kill, but that they acted with reckless disregard for human life.

The practical effect of the Watson case was that the advisement became a part of sentencing for convicted drunk driving defendants. This allowed prosecutors to find implied malice, or that the defendant acted with reckless disregard for human life, and thus charge second degree murder, should the defendant drive drunk again and kill someone. Although common sense tells us that it is dangerous to drive drunk, when a drunk driver kills someone and they haven’t suffered any prior DUI convictions, they will still be charged with manslaughter unless the prosecutor can prove that they actually knew it was dangerous to human life to drive drunk.

Last week, Villa, now 29 years old, was street racing with 24-year-old Ricardo Tolento, in Santa Ana when his BMW collided with a pickup truck which was making a left turn. The driver of the pickup truck was Orange County Register editor Eugene Harbrecht. The impact of the collision caused Harbrecht’s truck to land on its side 50 feet way and catch fire. Although good Samaritans pulled Harbrecht out of the vehicle, he was pronounced dead at the hospital.

Villa was injured and taken to the hospital. Tolento fled the scene but was apprehended a short time later.

“An illegal street race and a repeat drunk driver who had been warned about the dangers of driving under the influence collided in the middle of the day on a Santa Ana street, resulting in a tragedy that didn’t have to happen,” O.C. District Attorney Todd Spitzer said in a statement. “Because of the selfish actions of two strangers, a wife will never see her husband again and many more lost a treasured friend and colleague.”

Tolento faces up to 11 years in prison if convicted on all charges, none of which include murder. Why? Likely, this was Tolento’s first DUI, which means he was never expressly advised that it is dangerous to drive drunk, making it difficult for prosecutors to prove implied malice.

Villa, on the other hand, was charged with second degree murder. Why? He was read the Watson advisement back in 2012 and was made expressly aware that it was dangerous to drive drunk, giving prosecutors the implied malice they needed to charge murder. In addition to the murder charge, he was charged with one felony count each of driving under the influence of alcohol causing great bodily injury while street racing and driving under the influence of alcohol with a blood alcohol level of greater than 0.08 percent,  misdemeanor street racing, and misdemeanor driving on a revoked or suspended license.

 

Remaining Silent During a California DUI Stop

After having a few drinks with friends following work, a driver heads home. While on their way, they don’t make a full stop at a stop sign and are pulled over law enforcement. After telling the driver why they were pulled over, the officer begins asking questions. “Where are you going? Where are you coming from? Have you had anything to drink?” Without thinking about it, the driver says, “I had a couple of drinks with co-workers and I’m on my way home.” The next thing that driver knows is that they are in the back of the squad car and heading to the station on suspicion of driving under the influence.

The driver is released the following day having been charged with a DUI. They contact a DUI attorney and ask, “Can my case be dismissed because I was never given my Miranda Rights and I told the officer too much?”

The question is a common one since very few drivers actually invoke their right to remain silent during a DUI stop. This is true for a number or reasons; a driver might think that cooperation will help their cause, a driver might not know they had a right to remain silent, or a driver might just get too nervous to think about whether they should talk to the officer or not.

Unfortunately, in the scenario above, the case will not be dismissed and the officer legally did not need to give Miranda Warnings.

The United States Supreme Court in Miranda v. Arizona held that, since only voluntary confessions are admissible as evidence, a confession cannot be voluntary (thus admissible as evidence) unless a person knows that they have the right not to say anything. In other words, a person who does not know they have a right to remain silent and is not advised of such might mistakenly believe that they must talk to officers, thus making their confession involuntary. A confession is only voluntary if a person knows they have a right not to say anything and proceed to choose to speak to law enforcement. As such, the United States Supreme Court held that law enforcement cannot engage in a “custodial interrogation” until a person has been advised of their rights, including the right to remain silent under the 5th Amendment.

This means that officers must give the Miranda Warnings after a person has been arrested, but before an interrogation. Unfortunately, questioning by officers during a DUI stop in most instances, is not a custodial interrogation.

When the driver in the above scenario was stopped because they made a “California stop,” they were not “arrested” or “in custody.” When a person is stopped on suspicion of a DUI, or even a traffic violation that leads to a DUI investigation, the person is not arrested even though they may be temporarily detained. During the stop, the officer can ask questions without giving the Miranda Warnings because the driver was not yet arrested.

During that time, the driver still has the right to remain silent, but officer need not inform the driver of that right. These pre-arrest questions are only considered preliminary in nature, and any answers by the driver in response are fair game for prosecutors in a DUI case against the driver.  

If, on the other hand, the driver engages in a “California stop” and is arrested (not merely stopped) after the officer suspects that the driver is under the influence, the officer cannot ask questions without first giving the Miranda Warnings. Any answers to post-arrest questions about the DUI are inadmissible if the officer did not provide the Miranda Warnings.

Having said all of this, the 5th Amendment right to remain silent exists whether Miranda Warnings are given or not! A person always has a right to remain silent. During a DUI stop, drivers should unequivocally, but respectfully invoke their right to remain silent, then do so.

Saliva Test for THC Level Detection in Development

In recent years, cannabis and its derivatives having been gaining traction in the United States. Cannabis has become a serious competitor to alcohol’s long-lived reign as Americans’ recreational drug of choice. This competition primarily stems from several progressive cities and states’ decisions to relax the legal restrictions on the long-outlawed drug. Although the relaxation of laws surrounding cannabis and its byproducts results in plenty of benefits, there are drawbacks as well.

A Highway Loss Data Institute study in April of 2018 found that car crashes were up in states that had recently relaxed their laws concerning cannabis. For instance, car collisions were up as much as six percent in Colorado, Oregon, and Washington when compared with neighboring states that had not legalized the recreational use of cannabis. In an attempt to grapple with the issue, state legislators are looking into drafting laws targeting marijuana users who drive while intoxicated.

However, laws targeting stoned drivers are not as clear cut as those targeting drunk drivers. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive component of marijuana that causes intoxication, can stay in an individual’s bloodstream for days—sometimes even weeks. Alcohol, on the other hand, only stays in a person’s system for a couple of hours. Additionally, legislators have been able to create “per se” laws, or laws that punish a person for merely having a certain amount of alcohol in their system (0.08 percent BAC in all states except Utah where it is 0.05 percent BAC) regardless of intoxication level because science has proven that the per se levels correspond to the point at which a person cannot operate a vehicle as a sober person would. Since THC can stay in a person’s system well after they have sobered up, most states do not have per se laws for THC. Doing so creates the possibility that marijuana users be arrested for a DUI weeks after they have ingested the drug and well after they have sobered up from it. In other words, such laws would allow officers to arrest completely sober drivers for a DUI simply because they had THC in their system from smoking days, possibly weeks ago.

So how can law enforcement officers get an accurate measure of which drivers are THC-impaired and thus reduce collisions in the states that have legalized recreational use of the drug?

Researchers at the University of Texas, Dallas believe they have a solution. They have engineered THC sensor strips and accompanying electronic readers. The THC sensor strips contain two electrodes that are coated with an antibody that binds THC and isolates it from other compounds found in an individual’s saliva. When an individual’s saliva is put on the test strip, the strip is put into the electronic reader. A strip with THC on it rather than just normal saliva will result in a different electrical current that increases with the amount of THC in that individual’s saliva. The test takes about five minutes from start to finish, making it appealing to law enforcement for use during traffic stops. As of now, it is not clear whether the method of ingestion of THC makes a difference and how long exactly THC will remain on an individual’s tongue.

The saliva THC test is still in its early stages, but researchers say it is accurate for THC levels ranging from 100 picograms per milliliter to 100 nanograms per milliliter. One of the study’s lead researchers, Dr. Shalini Prasad, stated that preliminary clinical reports seem to suggest that one to fifteen nanograms of THC per milliliters of blood would make a driver impaired. Again, although the suggestion that a person can be impaired merely by having THC in their system may be true, the fact that a person can also still be sober while having the same levels of THC suggested by Dr. Prasad means that laws still cannot be based on THC alone without some indication of impairment as well. The hope is that this saliva test closes the gap between the mere presence of THC in a person and their intoxication from it.

While drivers have no need to worry about the saliva THC test in development at the moment, it is certainly something to keep an eye on. If the history of the breathalyzer and its rise to prominence tells us anything, the saliva THC test will soon be an important component in a law enforcement officer’s toolkits. Perhaps it will be used as frequently as breathalyzers are.

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.”