Category Archives: Vehicular Assault

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.

 

 

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.