Category Archives: DUI

Random UA’s & Privacy

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In State v. Olsen, the WA Supreme Court held that although random urinalysis tests (UAs) do implicate the privacy interests of a defendant who is on probation (probationer), the testing does not violate the defendant’s Constitutional rights if the UAs purpose was to  monitor compliance with a valid probation condition requiring the defendant to refrain from drug and alcohol consumption.

BACKGROUND FACTS

The facts are undisputed. In June 2014, defendant Brittanie Olsen pleaded guilty in Jefferson County District Court to one count of DUI, a gross misdemeanor offense under RCW 46.61.502. The court imposed a sentence of 364 days of confinement with 334 days suspended. As a condition of her suspended sentence, the court ordered that Olsen not consume alcohol, marijuana, or non prescribed drugs. Over defense objection, the court also required Olsen to submit to “random urine analysis screens … to ensure compliance with conditions regarding the consumption of alcohol and controlled substances.”

Olsen appealed to Jefferson County Superior Court, arguing that the random UAs requirement violated her privacy rights under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, section 7 of the Washington Constitution. She contended a warrantless search of a misdemeanant probationer may not be random but instead “must be supported by a well-founded suspicion that the probationer has violated a condition of her sentence.” The court agreed, vacated Olsen’s sentence, and remanded to the district court for resentencing without the requirement that Olsen submit to random urine tests.

The State appealed, and the Court of Appeals reversed, holding that “offenders on probation for DUI convictions do not have a privacy interest in preventing the random collection and testing of their urine when used to ensure compliance with a probation condition prohibiting the consumption of alcohol, marijuana, and/or non prescribed drugs.

ISSUE

The WA Supreme Court addressed the issue of whether random UAs ordered to monitor compliance with a valid probation condition not to consume drugs or alcohol violate a DUI probationer’s privacy interests under article I, section 7 of the Washington Constitution.

COURT’S CONCLUSIONS & ANALYSIS

The Supreme Court held that the random UAs here were conducted with “authority of law” under article I, section 7 of our state constitution. Furthermore, although random UAs of DUI probationers do implicate privacy interests, the UAs here are narrowly tailored and imposed to monitor compliance with a valid probation conditions.

The Court reasoned that The Washington State Constitution says that no person shall be disturbed in his private affairs, or his home invaded, without authority of law. One area of increased protection is the collection and testing of urine.

“Compared to the federal courts, we offer heightened protection for bodily functions,” said the Court. It elaborated that our courts have generally held that for ordinary citizens, suspicionless urinalysis testing constitutes a disturbance of one’s private affairs that, absent authority of law, violates the WA Constitution.

“On the other hand, we have repeatedly upheld blood or urine tests of prisoners, probationers, and parolees of some cases without explicitly conducting an analysis under the WA Constitution,” said the Court. It elaborated that two questions must be answered in cases like this: (1) whether the contested state action disturbed a person’s private affairs and, if so, (2) whether the action was undertaken with authority of law.

a. UAs Implicate a DUI Probationer’s Privacy Interests.

“We have consistently held that the nonconsensual removal of bodily fluids implicates privacy interests,” said the Court. It further stated that UAs implicate privacy interests in two ways. First, the act of providing a urine sample is fundamentally intrusive. This is particularly true where urine samples are collected under observation to ensure compliance. Second, chemical analysis of urine, like that of blood, can reveal a host of private medical facts about a person, including whether he or she is epileptic, pregnant, or diabetic. “These privacy interests are precisely what article I, section 7 is meant to protect.”

However, the Court also said that probationers do not enjoy constitutional privacy protection to the same degree as other citizens.

“Probationers have a reduced expectation of privacy because they are persons whom a court has sentenced to confinement but who are serving their time outside the prison walls,” said the Court.  Therefore, the State may supervise and scrutinize a probationer more closely than it may other citizens. “However, this diminished expectation of privacy is constitutionally permissible only to the extent necessitated by the legitimate demands of the operation of the parole process.”

The Court then addressed the State’s argument that UAs do not implicate Olsen’s privacy interests because probationers lack any privacy interest in their urine.

“We disagree,” said the Court. “Even though misdemeanant probationers have a reduced expectation of privacy, this does not mean that they have no privacy rights at all in their bodily fluids.” After giving a detailed analysis under the precedent of State v. Surge, the Court summarized that, even though probationers do not enjoy the same expectation of
privacy as other citizens, the UAs here still implicate their reduced privacy
interests under the WA Constitution.

b. Random UAs of DUI Probationers Do Not Violate the WA Constitution Because They Are Conducted with Authority of Law.

Next, the Court addressed whether the UA was performed with authority of law. In short, the Court decided that issue in the affirmative. It said the State has a strong interest in supervising DUI probationers in order to promote rehabilitation and protect the public, and elaborated that probation is simply one point (or, more accurately, one set of points) on a continuum of possible punishments.

It elaborated that probation is not a right, but an act of judicial grace or lenience motivated in part by the hope that the offender will become rehabilitated. To that end, a sentencing court has great discretion to impose conditions and restrictions of probation to assure that the probation serves as a period of genuine rehabilitation and that the community is not harmed by the probationer’s being at large.

“As such, the State has a compelling interest in closely monitoring probationers in order to promote their rehabilitation,” said the Court. “As probation officers’ role is rehabilitative rather than punitive in nature, they must, then, have tools at their disposal in order to accurately assess whether rehabilitation is taking place.” Here, in the case of DUI probationers, the Court reasoned that monitoring and supervision ensure that treatment is taking place and serve to protect the public in the case that a probationer fails to comply with court-imposed conditions.

The court further reasoned that random UAs are narrowly tailored to monitor compliance with probation conditions, they are an effective monitoring tool and they are a permissible under these circumstances:

“Unannounced testing is, arguably, crucial if a court is to impose drug testing at all. Random testing seeks to deter the probationer from consuming drugs or alcohol by putting her on notice that drug use can be discovered at any time. It also promotes rehabilitation and accountability by providing the probation officer with a ‘practical mechanism to determine whether rehabilitation is indeed taking place.'”

Finally, the WA Supreme Court reasoned that random UAs, under certain circumstances, are a constitutionally permissible form of close scrutiny of DUI probationers. It found that
the testing here was a narrowly tailored monitoring tool imposed pursuant to a valid prohibition on drug and alcohol use. Random UAs are also directly related to a probationer’s rehabilitation and supervision.

With that, the Court concluded  that the random UAs here were conducted with “authority of law” under article I, section 7 of our state constitution and affirmed the Court of Appeals decision to invoke them.

Invalid Search Warrant

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In State v. Youngs, the WA Court of Appeals suppressed evidence of the defendant’s blood test collected after a search warrant because the search warrant application did not contain sufficient facts to establish that the suspect was driving the car.

BACKGROUND FACTS

In the early morning hours of May 15, 2013, a Washington State Patrol Trooper arrested Youngs after driving a car involved in a rollover collision. The judge issued the warrant based on the Affidavit in Support of Search Warrant for Evidence of a Driving While Under the Influence of Intoxicants (DUI).

This affidavit is a largely preprinted form to which the law enforcement officer may add information.

Following the blood draw, the State charged Youngs with DUI. Youngs moved to suppress evidence obtained under authority of the warrant. The district court denied the motion. Youngs then agreed to a stipulated bench trial based on the police report and blood alcohol report. The district court found Youngs guilty and sentenced him.

Youngs sought review in the superior court. The Court affirmed based on the content in the state trooper’s affidavit. Eventually, the WA Court of Appeals granted Youngs’s appeal.

ISSUE

The question was whether the trooper’s search warrant affidavit had sufficient facts for a judge to make an independent decision whether there was probable cause that the defendant was driving.

COURT’S DECISION & ANALYSIS

 

The Court decided that although the factual information concerning intoxication is sufficient and unchallenged in this case, the factual information to establish driving is insufficient.

The Court reasoned that a judge may only issue a search warrant upon probable cause. The warrant must be supported by an affidavit identifying the place to be searched and the items to be seized. The affidavit must contain sufficient facts to convince an ordinary person that the defendant is probably engaged in criminal activity.

Furthermore, the Court reasoned that judges must evaluate the relevant affidavit “‘in a commonsense manner, rather than hypertechnically, and any doubts are resolved in favor of the warrant. Thus, a “negligent or innocent mistake” in drafting the affidavit will not void it. Also, judges may draw reasonable inferences from the stated facts.

However, the Court also reasoned that inferences alone, without an otherwise substantial basis of facts, are insufficient. The affidavit may provide summary statements so long as it also expresses the facts and circumstances underlying that summary.

Here, the Court found technical problems with the affidavit. For example, one problem is that the preprinted language in the form—”ceased driving/was found in physical control of a motor vehicle” — suggests that it is intended to apply to two different crimes. One crime is “Driving While Under the Influence under RCW 46.61.502, while the other is “Physical Control of Vehicle While Under the Influence under RCW 46.61.504, which is a totally separate and different crime with different elements for the State to prove:

The Court said that unlike the act of driving, which may be readily observed, “physical control” is a conclusion drawn from other facts. For example, a police officer may reach this conclusion based on the defendant’s proximity to the vehicle, possession of keys to it, or similar observable circumstances.  Because the magistrate must independently determine whether probable cause exists, he or she cannot simply accept such a conclusion without supporting allegations. Therefore, ruled the Court, the statements in the search warrant affidavit are conclusory, general, and insufficient to support probable cause that Youngs was driving the vehicle.

With that, the Court reversed Youngs’ conviction and remanded the case back to the district court with directions to suppress the evidence obtained by the warrant.

My opinion? Excellent decision. Sure, it’s sometimes safe to assume that the sole driver of a car involved in a collision is, in fact, the driver. However, it muddies the waters even further when law enforcement officers issuing search warrants fail to clarify whether the crime of straight DUI or Physical Control DUI took place. These crimes are very different. One crimes involves officers seeing the defendant drive (straight DUI) while the other crime does not (Physical Control DUI). Combined with the fact that there was missing information regarding the defendant’s driving at all, this combination of errors makes for an ineffective search warrant.

Again, good decision.

Fourth of July is One of the Deadliest Days For Drunk Driving

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Excellent news article by reporter German Lopez of Vox discusses how the Fourth of July is among the deadliest days for drunk driving every year, thanks to people both drinking and driving more.

According to an analysis by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety using data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System, between 2010 and 2014, July 4 had the second highest percent of car crash deaths that were linked to alcohol, and July 3 was also in the top 10.

Lopez gives a scale on how the 10 deadliest days broke down, with the percentage noting how many of the car crash deaths involved a blood alcohol level of 0.08 g/dL or more:

  1. January 1: 62 percent (364 of 591 car crash deaths)
  2. July 4: 47 percent (278 of 592 car crash deaths)
  3. December 24: 41 percent (191 of 461 car crash deaths)
  4. February 6: 41 percent (151 of 366 car crash deaths)
  5. July 24: 41 percent (207 of 502 car crash deaths)
  6. July 3: 41 percent (219 of 533 car crash deaths)
  7. March 9: 41 percent (161 of 396 car crash deaths)
  8. December 25: 41 percent (137 of 338 car crash deaths)
  9. April 21: 40 percent (176 of 435 car crash deaths)
  10. April 17: 40 percent (176 of 438 car crash deaths)

Also, Lopez reported that although drunk driving deaths have plummeted over the past few decades. In 1981, drunk driving killed more than 21,000 people. By 2015, that figure was cut in half. An array of reforms played a big role in that reduction, including raising the legal alcohol age to 21, pushing police to take the enforcement of drunk driving laws much more seriously, and general improvements in car and traffic safety.

But much of that action happened in the 1980s and ’90s, when MADD and other advocacy groups came together in a strong, well-funded effort to take drunk driving more seriously. Since then, the issue has fallen off the national radar.

 Alcohol’s problems extend far beyond drunk driving as well. Alcohol is linked to at least 88,000 deaths in the US each year, only about an eighth of which are driving-related. That estimate comes from 2006 through 2010, but more recent data suggests that at least some alcohol deaths are trending up: Between 2010 and 2015, the number of alcohol-induced deaths (those that involve direct health complications from alcohol, like liver cirrhosis) rose from less than 26,000 to more than 33,000.

Based on the research, there is also a lot more that America could be doing to prevent alcohol-related deaths — yet there is little media or public attention to this issue, so there is little pressure for lawmakers to put this research into action. The result is that one of the big causes of death in America continues to kill thousands of people a year.

DEALING WITH INCREASED DEATH TOLLS RELATED TO ALCOHOL ABUSE.

Lopez points out that when Americans think about alcohol policy, the first thing that comes to mind is probably Prohibition, which effectively banned the manufacture and sale of alcohol from 1920 to 1933. That solution, of course, did not work. Still, Lopez suggests the following other policies could help address the negative safety impacts of drinking.

  • A higher alcohol tax: A 2010 review of the research in the American Journal of Public Health came out with strong findings: “Our results suggest that doubling the alcohol tax would reduce alcohol-related mortality by an average of 35%, traffic crash deaths by 11%, sexually transmitted disease by 6%, violence by 2%, and crime by 1.4%.”
  • Reducing the number of alcohol outlets: A 2009 review published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine also found that limiting the number of alcohol outlets (such as liquor stores) in an area through stricter licensing, for example, can limit problematic drinking and its dangers. But it also found that going too far can have negative results — by, for example, causing more car crashes as people take longer drives to outlets and possibly drink before returning home.
  • Revoking alcohol offenders’ right to drink: South Dakota’s 24/7 Sobriety programeffectively revokes people’s right to drink if a court deems it necessary after an alcohol-related offense. The program, specifically, monitors offenders through twice-a-day breathalyzer tests or a bracelet that can track blood alcohol level, and jails them for one or two days for each failed test. Studies from the RAND Corporation have linked the program to drops in mortality, DUI arrests, and domestic violence arrests.
  • Put state governments in charge of selling alcohol: A 2014 report from RAND concluded that when state governments monopolize alcohol sales through state-run shops, they can keep prices higher, reduce access to youth, and reduce overall levels of use.

These are just a few of the ideas that experts have put out there. There are many more ways to curtail alcohol consumption and misuse without outright banning it.

Maybe these policies still go too far for some people. Different individuals will likely disagree on whether these proposals go too far in restricting personal liberty, even if they do save some lives. But the research suggests such policies are at least worth considering.

Yet lawmakers have paid very little attention to alcohol policy. As Philip Cook, a public policy expert at Duke University who wrote Paying the Tab: The Costs and Benefits of Alcohol Control, told Mr. Lopez, the last time Congress raised the federal alcohol tax was 1991 — and that has let the actual impact of the tax erode due to increasing inflation:

“The great opportunity we have is to restore taxes to the real value that they had a few decades ago. That’s justified by the current social costs of drinking, and would have all kinds of beneficial effects, while being justified just from the point of view that drinkers should pay for the damage that they do.”

My opinion? I share Mr. Lopez’s argument that part of the problem is that policymakers just don’t feel much pressure to act on these kinds of public health problems — at least in the same way they feel compelled to act on an issue like, say, terrorism. So thousands of needless deaths continue happening in America every year, including hundreds this Fourth of July.

However, if you; a friend or family member is pulled over for alcohol-related driving, contact a qualified, competent criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. The consequences of DUI – ranging from jail, to high court fines to suspended/revoked drivers  licenses are too great to be trifled with.

Independent Blood Tests

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In State v. Sosa, the WA Court of Appeals Div. III decided there is no requirement that an officer performing a blood draw on a DUI suspect must advise the driver that the driver has the right to an independent blood alcohol test.

BACKGROUND FACTS

On March of 2014, defendant Jose Sosa’s vehicle crossed the center line of U.S. Route 12, causing a two-car collision. Mr. Sosa called 911 and law enforcement responded to the scene. On contact, the responding officer noticed Mr. Sosa smelled of alcohol and showed signs of impairment. In response to questioning, Mr. Sosa disclosed that he had some beer earlier but did not provide any specifics. An ambulance transported Mr. Sosa to the hospital.

At the emergency room, a state trooper contacted Mr. Sosa. Again, Mr. Sosa was noted to smell of alcohol and display signs of impairment. The trooper asked Mr. Sosa if he would be willing to do a voluntary field sobriety test. Mr. Sosa did not respond. The trooper then offered to administer a portable breath test (PBT), which would have provided a preliminary indication of Mr. Sosa’s BAC. Again, Mr. Sosa did not respond.

Based on the trooper’s observations, a warrant was obtained to procure a sample of Mr. Sosa’s blood. Three and a half hours after the accident, Mr. Sosa’s BAC was 0.12. Mr. Sosa was arrested and charged with vehicular assault.

Several days after the accident, the driver of the vehicle hit by Mr. Sosa returned to the hospital because of abdominal pain. Doctors performed a lifesaving partial splenectomy. Mr. Sosa’s case proceeded to trial. The jury found Mr. Sosa guilty of vehicular assault via all three of the charged alternatives: ( 1) operating a vehicle in a reckless manner, (2) operating a vehicle while under the influence of intoxicating liquor or drugs, and (3) operating a vehicle with disregard for the safety of others.

On appeal, Mr. Sosa argues evidence of his blood test results should have been suppressed because he was not advised, at the time of the blood draw, of the right to independent testing. Former RCW 46.61.506(6) (2010) stated: “The person tested may have a physician, or a qualified technician, chemist, registered nurse, or other qualified person of his or her own choosing administer one or more tests in addition to any administered at the direction of a law enforcement officer. … ” On this argument, Mr. Sosa alleged his constitutional rights were violated.

COURT’S ANALYSIS

The Court reasoned that cases relied on by Mr. Sosa in support of his right-to-advice argument interpret prior versions of the Revised Code of Washington. The statutes in effect at the time of Mr. Sosa’s offense no longer required advice about independent testing in the context of a blood draw:

“Had Mr. Sosa’s offense taken place prior to the 2013 amendment, he undoubtedly would have been entitled to advice about independent blood testing. But this is no longer so. Our case law addressing the implied consent warning has always been based on statutory principles, not constitutional grounds.”

In short, the Court stated there is no independent constitutional right to such advice. Accordingly, any failure of law enforcement to advise Mr. Sosa about the right to an independent test had no bearing on the State’s evidence or Mr. Sosa’s conviction. With that, the court rejected Mr. Sosa’s challenge to his conviction based on the blood test results.

My opinion? Had Mr. Sosa’s offense taken place prior to the 2013 amendment, he undoubtedly would have been entitled to advice about independent blood testing. But this is no longer so. Washington’s implied consent law changed after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Missouri v. McNeely, which held the taking of a DUI suspect’s blood without a warrant violates the suspect’s rights under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and the exigency exception to the warrant requirement generally does not apply.

 

 

DUI: Men vs. Women

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Great news article from the Bellingham Herald discusses the physiological differences in alcohol impairment levels experienced between men and women.

In Who Gets Arrested More for DUI: Men or Women?,  author Doug Dahl states that over the past couple decades, alcohol-impaired driving has steadily been decreasing, however, the reduction in impaired driving doesn’t apply to women. Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force.

Apparently, in a recent 10-year period, DUI arrests for men decreased by 7.5 percent while DUI arrests for women increased by 28.8 percent.

“According to the CDC, the average weight of an American man is 196 pounds, while the average American woman weighs 166 pounds,” said Dahl.  “Also, because of differences in enzymes, hormones and body fat percentages between men and women, women generally metabolize alcohol at a slower rate.” Simply put, says Dahl, women get drunk faster and stay drunk longer than men:

“To be clear, both of our imaginary people in this example shouldn’t drive. A BAC of .06 will cause impairment. It’s a big enough concern that legislators in some states, including Washington, have proposed reducing the legal limit to .05.”

Mr. Dahl further states that the level of impairment between a BAC of .06 and .09 is significant. According to a study of impaired driving crashes, a driver with a BAC of .06 is about 1.6 times more likely to cause a crash than a sober driver. For a driver with a BAC of .09, that jumps up to 3.5 times more likely. “Don’t judge your own impairment based on how someone else handles the same amount of alcohol, and always have a plan for a safe ride home before going out for drinks,” says Dahl.

Regardless of your gender, please contact my office if you, a friend or relative faces charges of DUI. These charges are serious, threaten careers and can significantly limit one’s driving privileges.

Lower .08 to .05?

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Interesting article from Heather Bosch of KING 5 news reports that Washington state lawmakers are considering lowering the legal limit for driving under intoxication (DUI) from .08 to .05.

“The research shows impairment begins with the first drink,” said Representative John Lovick, D-44th District. “And I believe this after being a state trooper for 31 years.” Lovick said he based his legislation, House Bill 1874, on recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board.

According to Bosche, however, the American Beverage Institute opposes the bill and similar legislation being proposed in Hawaii and Utah. The industry group claims only a small percentage of deadly car crashes are caused by drivers with a blood alcohol concentration between .05 and .08, and that a 120-pound woman could reach .05 with just little more than one drink. A 150-pound man could reach it after two.

“The move would target responsible and moderate social drinkers while ignoring the hardcore drunk drivers who pose the greatest threat to safety,” said American Beverage Institute Managing Director Sarah Longwell. In short, Longwell says what’s needed is better enforcement of current laws: “We have to focus on the real problem and not be distracted by feel-good legislation that criminalizes perfectly responsible behavior,” said Longwell.

Representative John Lovick agrees that current laws could be better enforced, but says lowering the alcohol limit to .05 would be “a great first step in letting the public know that we are serious about keeping people who drive drunk, off the streets.”

Bosche reports that a public hearing before the House Transportation Committee will be held Tuesday. The bill already cleared the House Public Safety committee, but not without controversy.

“There will be a few ‘no’ votes on this side of the aisle,” Representative Dave Hayes (R-10th District) said during a recent hearing. “My personal viewpoint on this is just the fact that I don’t believe it’s necessary to reduce the blood alcohol level, based on testimony and my own personal experience in processing DUIs.” Hayes is a sergeant with the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office.  Lovick is the former Snohomish County Sheriff.

The National Transportation Safety Board has said that if every state lowered the legal blood alcohol limit to .05, it would save 1,000 lives every year.

Interestingly, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) does not support the measure, calling it a “waste of time” because most people who are under .08 can pass field sobriety tests.

State Senate Passes Bill Making Fourth DUI a Felony.

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The WA State Senate has unanimously passed a bill that would make driving under the influence (DUI) a felony if the driver has three or more prior offenses on their criminal record within 10 years.

Senate Bill 5037 passed Thursday and now heads to the House, where it has stalled in previous years. The bill’s sponsors are as follows: Padden, Frockt, O’Ban, Darneille, Miloscia, Kuderer, Zeiger, Carlyle, Pearson, Conway, Rolfes, Palumbo, Angel, and Wellman.

Under the measure, a person who is charged with a fourth DUI, and has no other criminal history, would be subject to a standard sentencing range of 13 to 17 months in jail.

However, this bill allows first-time felony offenders to spend up to six months in jail, instead of nine, and finish out the rest of their sentence under supervision, such as attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and other programs.

My opinion? We shouldn’t be surprised. Over the past 20 years, Americans have seen a significant increase in the harsh penalties for intoxicated drivers. Perhaps this is necessary move given the thousands of lives lost to drunk drivers. Speaking as a criminal defense attorney, there’s serious question as to whether people commit these violations purely out of willful disregard for the law and for the safety of others or because of an untreated mental illness or alcohol addiction. Nevertheless, public outcry has led to increased sentences.

Many attorneys in Whatcom County and Skagit County claim to represent clients in DUI cases, but not all attorneys have the experience and successes of attorney Alexander F. Ransom.  To learn more about DUI laws or if you have been charged with a driving offense, make your first call count. Call the Law Office of Alexander F. Ransom today.

Strict Liability Offenses

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In State v. Burch, Division II of the WA Court of Appeals held that in order to convict a defendant of vehicular homicide or vehicular assault, the State need not prove that a driver acted with ordinary negligence in the operation of a motor vehicle if it merely proves that the driver was under the influence of alcohol or drugs while driving that vehicle.

In December 2014, Burch was driving across an icy bridge when her truck spun out, slid off the road, and hit two men who were investigating the scene of an earlier accident. One of the men died and the other received serious injuries, including multiple broken bones and a severe ear laceration. Burch was uncooperative with law enforcement officers who responded to the scene. During their contact with Burch, the officers noticed that she smelled strongly of intoxicants.

They restrained Burch and brought her to a hospital to draw blood to test for intoxicants. Testing of that sample showed a blood alcohol concentration of .09, indicating a concentration between .11 and .14 two hours after the accident. The State charged Burch with vehicular homicide and vehicular assault, alleging that she drove or operated a motor vehicle while under the influence of intoxicating liquor or any drug or any combination of the two, in a reckless manner, and with disregard for the safety of others.

The jury found Burch guilty of both vehicular homicide and vehicular assault. In special verdicts, the jury found that Burch had driven while under the influence of intoxicating liquor or drugs, but had not driven recklessly. However, the jury was unable to agree as to whether she had driven with disregard for the safety of others. Burch appealed her convictions.

The Court of Appeals addressed the sole issue of whether the crimes of vehicular homicide and vehicular assault committed while under the influence of alcohol or drugs require the State to prove ordinary negligence in addition to the fact that the defendant was under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Here, the Court of Appeals disagreed with Burch’s arguments that ordinary negligence is an element of vehicular homicide by driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

The Court also reasoned, “Offenses that criminalize a broad range of apparently innocent behavior are less likely to be strict liability offenses.  However, vehicular homicide committed by a driver under the influence encompasses little, if any, seemingly innocent conduct:

“Driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs is itself a serious criminal offense. RCW 46.61.502(1). Therefore, operating a motor vehicle under the influence is rarely, if ever, innocent behavior. Because vehicular homicide while under the influence of intoxicating liquor or drugs requires the State to prove the facts of both impairment and operation of a motor vehicle, the crime necessarily encompasses primarily or solely criminal behavior.”

For those who don’t know, a “strict liability offense” strict liability exists when a defendant is in legal jeopardy by virtue of an wrongful act, without any accompanying intent or mental state.  In criminal law, possession crimes and statutory rape are both examples of strict liability offences.

With that, the Court of Appeals held that the legislature intended to impose strict liability for vehicular homicide while under the influence of alcohol or drugs: “These considerations, along with the analysis of relevant statutory language above, lead to a single conclusion: the trial court did not err by instructing the jury that it could convict Burch without finding ordinary negligence or any other culpable mental state.”

The Court also held that the legislature intended vehicular assault by driving under the influence to be a strict liability offense, and that the trial court did not err by instructing the jury that it could convict without finding that Burch acted with ordinary negligence.

My opinion? Vehicular Homicide and Vehicular Assault are particularly difficult to mount a legal defense against given the “strict liability” facets of the law. The prosecution does not need to prove intent as long as the offender had drugs or alcohol in their sytstem at the time of the offense. Period.

New Federal Data Shows Decrease in Drunk Driving Rates

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According to reporter Christopher Ingraham of the Washington Post, new federal statistics show that the rate of drunken driving in the United States fell to a 13-year low in 2014, the latest year for which data is available. The rate of driving under the influence of illicit drugs has not changed meaningfully in recent years but remains slightly lower than it was in 2008 and 2009 at the start of the Obama administration.

Here’s a summary of some other findings:

  • In 2014, 27.7 million people aged 16 or older (11.1 percent) drove under the influence of alcohol in the past year, and 10.1 million (4.1 percent) drove under the influence of illicit drugs in the past year. About 7.0 million (2.8 percent) drove under the influence of alcohol and illicit drugs in the past year, including 5.9 million (2.4 percent) who drove under the simultaneous influence of alcohol and illicit drugs in the past year.
  • The percentage of people driving under the influence generally increased with age through the young adult years and then declined with age thereafter; percentages were higher among males than females.
  • The percentage of people aged 16 or older who drove under the influence of alcohol in 2014 (11.1 percent) was lower than the percentages in 2002 through 2012 (ranging from 11.8 to 15.3 percent).
  • The percentage of people aged 16 or older who drove under the influence of illicit drugs was lower in 2014 (4.1 percent) than in 2002 through 2006 and in 2009 through 2010.
  • The percentage of people aged 16 or older who drove under the simultaneous influence of alcohol and illicit drugs was lower in 2014 (2.4 percent) than in 2002 through 2010 (ranging from 2.9 to 3.4 percent).

Ingraham reported that although experts caution that while the trend is heading in the right direction, there’s still a lot of work to be done. “Although it is heartening to see a downward trend in levels of driving under the influence of alcohol, it still kills thousands of people each year and shatters the lives of friends and loved ones left behind,” said Frances Harding, director of the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention at SAMHSA, the agency that produces the survey.

The SAMHSA survey showed that young adults — particularly men ages 21 to 25 — had by far the highest impaired driving rates. More than 1 in 5 men ages 21 to 25 drove drunk in 2014, nearly 1 in 7 drove under the influence of other drugs, and roughly 1 in 12 drove while simultaneously drunk and drugged.

One the other hand, young adults have also seen the greatest reductions in drunken driving prevalence over the past 13 years. Since 2002, the drunken driving rate fell by fewer than three percentage points among drivers age 26 and older. But the rate among drivers ages 21 to 25 dropped by more than 10 percentage points. And the prevalence among the youngest drivers, ages 16 to 20, fell by more than half.

Ingraham reports there’s no single factor driving the decline in drunken driving rates. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention credits interventions like strong drunken driving laws, public awareness campaigns, and ignition interlock systems that don’t allow drunk drivers to start cars.

Some states are experimenting with innovative programs that essentially take away the right to drink alcohol, period, for people convicted of certain alcohol-related crimes. There’s also evidence that ride-sharing services like Uber can reduce drunken driving rates, although not all researchers agree on this.

My opinion? This is extremely good news. Although it’s important to save lives by reducing traffic accidents through education, prevention, and all other possible measures; it’s equally important that defendants facing these criminal charges hire capable and competent defense counsel as soon as possible to protect their rights, review the evidence and ensure a fair trial when necessary.

Contact my office for a free consultation if you, a friend or family member face DUI or related charges.

What Happened After Voters Legalized Recreational Marijuana?

Reporter Christopher Ingraham of the Washington Post wrote an article discussing how that the availability of recreational marijuana — in Colorado and elsewhere — is having little to no effect on teens’ propensity to smoke weed.

COLORADO

In his article, Ingraham supports his claim with the official statistics out of Colorado through 2015. It’s also what federal data shows nationwide through this year. And it’s also backed up by other federal surveys of drug use in the states where marijuana is legal.

It appears the data on this point has been consistent enough that longtime skeptics of the merits of marijuana legalization, like Nora Volkow of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, are expressing surprise at the findings. “We had predicted based on the changes in legalization, culture in the U.S. as well as decreasing perceptions among teenagers that marijuana was harmful that [accessibility and use] would go up,” Volkow told U.S. News and World Report earlier this month. “But it hasn’t gone up.”

WASHINGTON

However, a study out Tuesday in the journal JAMA Pediatrics flies somewhat in the face of the new conventional marijuana wisdom. Examining marijuana use among high school students in Washington state two years before and after the vote to legalize in 2012, it finds that rates of marijuana use increased by about 3 percent among 8th- and 10th-graders over that period.

INTERPRETING THE FINDINGS

The authors posit that reduced stigma about marijuana use is one factor leading to the results that they observed.

“Our study suggests that legalization of marijuana in Washington reduced stigma and perceived risk of use,” said lead author Magdalena Cerdá of the University of California in Davis in a news release, “which could explain why younger adolescents are using more marijuana after legalization.”

The findings are something of a puzzle. The study found no change in marijuana use among 12th-graders in Washington state, which the authors said could be because the 12th-graders in the study were old enough that “they had already formed attitudes and beliefs related to marijuana use” before the legal change.

The study also found no change in use among students at any grade level in Colorado. The authors write that Colorado had a robust medical marijuana industry in place well before full legalization, which may have affected youth attitudes and behaviors there before the study period.

Among adolescents, the perceived harmfulness of marijuana has been declining for decades among all age groups. But at the same time, adolescent use of marijuana has been flat or falling. This has led some researchers, including Mark Kleiman of New York University, to rethink the nature of the link between what teens think about weed and whether they use it.

In an email, Kleiman pointed out that in Washington state, the recreational marijuana market didn’t open until halfway through 2014, and then only in limited form. That’s halfway through the “after” period (2013 to 2015) in the JAMA Pediatrics study.

“The effect of the legalization initiatives themselves on price and availability of cannabis really wasn’t felt until after” the study’s surveys were done, Kleiman said. “Any measured effect would be more likely the result of the political campaign around legalization than legalization itself.”

Indeed, the study’s authors agree with that assessment. “Simply legalizing an activity can change people’s views about it and can change their behaviors as well,” said co-author Deborah Hasin of Columbia University in an email.