Should the Law Require that Video be Taken during DUI Stops?

Thursday, May 9th, 2019

South Carolina, a state that carries the unfortunate honor of having one of the highest rates of DUI-related deaths in the country, also has one of the most unique DUI laws in the country. But it’s not a law that you would have expected, such as a lower BAC limit or unusually high punishment for a DUI. Rather, the law requires that law enforcement video record all DUI stops.

The law and the repercussions for not following the law has led to law enforcement, prosecutors and even the media to call the law a “camera loophole” that allows drunk drivers “off the hook.”

This week, WBTW News13 reported on this so-called “loophole.”

News13 investigates: ‘Camera loophole’ still letting drunk drivers off the hook

May 9, 2019 – WBTW News13 – South Carolina’s per-mile rate of DUI fatalities is among the highest in the nation every year.

A report released last year ranks the Palmetto State second in the U.S. for drunk driving deaths.

Police and prosecutors say current state law is putting you and your family in danger, because drunk drivers that should be getting convictions are walking away scot-free.

They say one contributing factor is a loophole in the state’s DUI law. It’s called the “camera loophole.”

News13 investigated the camera loophole in 2016. Since then, there has been little effort to fix the law. 

The South Carolina chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving released a three-year report last year. It found that DUI cases that were resolved in less than a year resulted in a 52 percent conviction rate compared to 33 percent in cases that dragged on for more than a year.

South Carolina law requires police to videotape DUI traffic stops. Any small misstep could jeopardize a case — if the driver stumbles out of frame, the driver’s feet can’t be seen, or the shot is too dark.

One video shows a Horry County officer giving a field sobriety test to a man who ran off the side of the road. He can’t walk in a straight line, and the officer said he also failed an eye test.

But because you can’t clearly see his face, Horry County Solicitor Jimmy Richardson said this situation probably wouldn’t hold up in court.

“You’re not all the way on. Or, if your feet as you get closer to the car cut off for a second then that throws the case out,” Richardson said.

You read that correctly: a blip, static, or stumble doesn’t just get the video dismissed, it can get the whole case dropped.

PFC Shon McCluskey with the Myrtle Beach Police Department said a lot of effort goes into setting up the perfect shot.

“It is a process. We’ve actually joked around at times saying sometimes you feel like you have to have an entire live PD scene with you to get every aspect of the case to make sure that everything is perfect.”

McCluskey said he takes extra precaution to make sure his dash cam video frame is wide enough and that there is nothing blocking the shot. But some things are out of his control.

“We’re not working in perfect environments out here every day. It’s not always sunny, it’s not always calm. Sometimes it can be a little windy, it can be rainy.”

Efforts at the legislative level in recent years to change the video requirements have failed. Bills introduced in the House and Senate in 2015 adding more wiggle room to the video requirements never moved out of committees.

None have been introduced in the current session.

News13 asked Jimmy Richardson why little progress has been made.

“Some of my best friends are in the legislature,” Richardson replied, “So present company excluded, about 40 percent of our legislature are attorneys. Only two or three of them are former prosecutors, the other 39.9 percent are defense attorneys. And this is where defense attorneys make their money. So, I would suggest that’s probably why the law is so complicated.”

Attorney and South Carolina Senator Stephen Goldfinch said it’s so complicated, because lawmakers are trying to balance the constitutional rights of everyone.

“Even if they are the lowest of the low, the murderers, the DUI drivers that kill people, the people that none of us want to protect, we have a legal duty, a constitutional duty to protect,” Goldfinch said.

Goldfinch said video evidence isn’t being tossed out of cases as often as law enforcement and advocates claim, but he admitted there are problems with the law.

“There are cases out there that show us that there have been problems in past history in regards to the loophole that you’re talking about,” Goldfinch said. “And I think there are some cases where we could probably close that loophole on. But we’ve got to be careful not to interject ourselves into the middle of the court system and the judicial system and the province of the judge.

Richardson also said that closing any DUI loopholes may need to come from the judges instead of the lawmakers.

“Case law will probably be the way to change that, saying that it doesn’t have to be 100 percent, it’s what is reasonable under the circumstances,” Richardson said. “And just with those four or five words you fix the entire system.”

But is it really fair to call the South Carolina law a loophole?

The purpose of the law is transparency, plain and simple, and for good reason. At a time when the public trust in law enforcement is waning, due in large part to police getting caught engaging in less-than-honest interactions with people, transparency with law enforcement is absolutely essential.

I can tell you firsthand that there is a problem with law enforcement fabricating information in DUI police reports. I have personally handled a case where the police deliberately took a DUI suspect out of dashboard camera range to perform the field sobriety tests, stated in the police report that the suspect failed the tests, and then the person’s blood alcohol content later turned out to be only 0.02 percent, well below the legal limit and an extremely strong indication that the suspect was sober. When handling the case, the prosecutor, who I personally knew, admitted that this was a problem she had seen with several DUI cases.

Let me simplify what I’ve just said. The police deliberately tried concealing their own lie just to put someone in jail for a DUI when that person wasn’t even drunk!

This South Carolina law is not “loophole.” It is ensuring transparency to protect the rights of the public. And if people who are actually driving drunk are “let off the hook,” it’s not because there’s a problem with the law. Rather, it’s because there’s a problem with law enforcement’s ability to abide by the law.

Here are some suggestions: Give better training to your officers, invest in some better dash cam equipment, or better yet, get some body cameras.

Personally, and I hope you would agree, I would rather see law enforcement take a few extra steps towards ensuring transparency than see wrongful DUI arrests by police who just want to add a notch on their belt.

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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.

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Should You Take a Breathalyzer During a California DUI Stop?

Thursday, October 4th, 2018

There are many misconceptions about what a person should and shouldn’t do during a DUI stop, not the least of which is whether a person should submit to the breathalyzer test. Unfortunately, the answer, like many things in law, is much more complicated than simply “yes” or “no.”

There are actually two breathalyzer tests that can be taken during a California DUI stop. The first is the roadside breathalyzer, often called a preliminary screening alcohol test or “PAS” test, and the second is the “chemical breath test.”

Under 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.”

Like the other field sobriety tests that officers hope will give them reason to believe that the driver is intoxicated, the roadside breath test is optional. Having said that, many people don’t even know that the other field sobriety tests are optional. These tests include the horizontal gaze nystagmus test, the walk and turn test, and the one-leg stand test. All field sobriety tests, including the roadside breathalyzer, are optional. Although the officer might threaten to arrest you, stand your ground and politely refuse all field sobriety tests. They are only meant to give the officer the evidence they need to arrest you.

In fact, the officer must advise the driver that the roadside breath 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.”

Whether the driver has submitted to the roadside breathalyzer or not, the officer must determine if the person is intoxicated and thus should be arrested.

If the officer has the required probable cause to make an arrest for a DUI, whether through the field sobriety tests, the PAS test, or any other information, California’s Implied Consent Law kicks in. Herein lies the difference between a roadside breath test and a chemical test.

Under California’s Implied Consent law, which is codified in California Vehicle Code section 23612(a)(1)(A), “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].”

Simply put, if you have a license and you drive in California, you have impliedly consented to submit to the chemical test after you have lawfully been arrested for a DUI, which can either be a breath test or a blood test. If the driver is like me and hates giving blood, then they must provide a breath test. Conversely, if a person opts against the breath test, they must submit to the blood test.

So, to answer the question that is the title of this article, you do not have to (nor do I recommend) submitting to the pre-arrest roadside breath test. However, after someone is arrested, they must do either a breath test or a blood test.

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Probation for “One of the Worst DUI Offenders in US”

Thursday, August 23rd, 2018

A Minnesota woman, who has been dubbed by police as “one of the worst DUI offenders in the United States” was sentenced on her seventh DUI conviction to 24 months of probation.

Tasha Lynn Schleicher, 41, or New Hope, Minnesota was arrested in April of this year after police responded to a report of a woman passed out behind the wheel of her vehicle at a gas station in Riverside, Illinois.

Upon finding Schleicher, law enforcement said they found her alert and conscious with keys in the vehicle’s ignition and the engine running. Law enforcement also said that it appeared that Schleicher had mistakenly attempted to fill her vehicle’s gas tank with kerosene instead of gasoline while at the kerosene pump.

Law enforcement also noticed that Schleicher appeared to be highly intoxicated and had an open bottle of Crown Royal Canadian whiskey in her front passenger seat.

When law enforcement requested that Schleicher step out of her vehicle so that she could perform field sobriety tests, she was “in total disarray, not wearing shoes, and her clothes were literally falling off her.”

Schleicher proceeded to tell the arresting officers that she had 11 children who she could not find. Witnesses said that Schleicher appeared to be the only one in the vehicle and, after a search of the area, officers found no children nearby.

After refusing the field sobriety tests, Schleicher was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence.

After the arrest, officers learned that Schleicher’s 11 children had been taken away from her for reasons all related to her alcohol and drunk driving incidences.

The Minnesota mother told law enforcement that she was in Illinois to drop off her 15-year-old son – the only child still in her legal custody – to “party” for spring break. She also told law enforcement that she was pregnant, bleeding, and having a miscarriage. Schleicher was then transported to the hospital where it was confirmed that she was, in fact, not pregnant.

“She’s lied about her name, date of birth, Social Security number and even that she was pregnant, leaving officers no choice but to take her to the emergency room for treatment for something completely fictitious. I believe her trip to the hospital was really an attempt by her to escape custody,” Riverside Police Chief Thomas Weitzel said.

After he arrest, law enforcement determined that Schleicher had outstanding warrants in three states and six prior DUI arrests in Kentucky, Wisconsin, Indiana, California, Oregon, and Minnesota.

“Schleicher’s history of six prior DUI’s in six states, with three outstanding warrants from various states speaks to her transient nature. When she was arrested in a state, she would just not show up in court unless she was held in custody. That’s one of the reasons for so many outstanding warrants. In Minnesota she was arrested with children in the car, and alleged to have been breastfeeding one child while driving intoxicated,” Weitzel said.

Although Schleicher was indicted by a grand jury on seven felony counts of aggravated drunk driving, driving with a revoke license, driving without insurance, and transporting open alcohol, all charges were dropped except for a single DUI charge as part of a plea deal.

On Monday, Schleicher pleaded guilty to that single DUI charge and was sentenced to 24 months of probation.

“A sentence of 24 months of probation for Ms. Schleicher is, simply put, disappointing,” Weitzel said in an emailed statement Tuesday. “This continues to demonstrate that as a nation that drunk driving and drugged driving are not treated as a serious criminal offenses. Society’s views need to change and habitual DUI offenders need to be held accountable for their actions.”

You can form your own opinions about whether two years of probation is appropriate or not. What is not up for opinion is the fact that that alcoholism is a legitimate disease and one that cannot be cured with punishment as evidenced by Schleicher.

 

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Video Evidence in a California DUI Case

Thursday, June 21st, 2018

No longer are the days where it was the cop’s word against the driver’s word about what exactly happened when the cop pulled the driver over on suspicion of driving under the influence. Fortunately, video evidence is becoming increasingly available in California DUI cases to confirm or refute the facts of the case.

Mobile video and audio recording systems (“MVARS”), often referred to as “dash cams,” were first used by law enforcement in the late 1980’s in Texas to keep law enforcement safe in remote rural areas. Back then, the camera was mounted on a tripod and the footage was recorded on a VHS cassette. Remember those? This necessarily meant that they were big, bulky and expensive. As a result, law enforcement agencies did not begin using dash cams regularly until the technological efficiency of dash cams increased, and price decreased in the late 2000’s. This is not to say that all agencies use them, because some still do not.

If, however, a patrol car has one, it may help officers gather evidence that a driver was driving under the influence as well evidence that a driver may not have been driving under the influence.

Dash cam footage is objective. An officer’s perception and recollection of the event unfortunately are not. Unlike a police report which is written hours after the DUI stop occurred (and well after an officer’s memory begins to fade), a dash cam records the events as they occur.

Law enforcement needs probable cause of a traffic violation to initiate a traffic stop, which is usually the first step in the DUI investigation process. Absent probable cause, a driver cannot be pulled over. Unfortunately, many officers fabricate the probable cause for stop, claiming that a driver never used a blinker, or they were swerving, or they ran a stop sign, so on, so forth. The dash cam, however, can show that there was no probable cause for the stop. It can show that the blinker was used, there was no swerving, and the driver did stop at the stop sign.

Even in agencies that use dash cams, some officers are finding their own ways to circumvent the transparency that the dash cam provides.

More often than not, at least in my experience, officers will take the driver out of the camera’s view to perform field sobriety tests. The officer will then write up their police report claiming that the driver “failed” the field sobriety tests providing little or no explanation as to why they failed.

Hopefully, this will soon be a thing of the past as more law enforcement agencies are beginning to use body cameras rather than or in addition to dash cams.

A body camera would serve to provide first-hand evidence to support officer claims that a person was, in fact, driving drunk. If an officer justifies a DUI arrest by claiming that an arrestee had slurred speech and bloodshot, watery eyes, the footage would verify the officer’s claims. If an officer determines that a person failed field sobriety tests, the footage from the body camera could support the officer’s interpretation of the person’s performance.

What if a patrol car doesn’t have a dash cam and the officer doesn’t have a body cam? Can you or someone else record officers during a DUI stop?

I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have a smartphone with a camera on it. If you, a passenger, or some other third party have a camera, such as a smartphone camera, readily available, you can record law enforcement performing their duties in public. The First Amendment protects the right to discuss the government, the right to free press, and the right to public access of information. And the courts are fairly unanimous that citizen journalists are protected just as much as members of the press. This includes the right of citizens to record officers performing their duties in public as long as the citizen isn’t recording officers surreptitiously, doesn’t interfere with the officer, or doesn’t break the law while recording.

Whether it comes from a dash cam, a body cam, or a smart phone, video evidence provides transparency during DUI stops. Transparency means finding the truth, which is what should be at the heart of every DUI case. Unlike officers, video footage can’t lie.

 

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