Category Archives: Vehicular Assault

Emergency Blood Draws

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In State v. Inman, the WA Court of Appeals held that a warrantless blood draw was proper under exigent circumstances where: (a) the injury collision occurred in a rural area; (b) there is spotty phone service; (c) a search warrant takes 30-45 minutes to create; and (d) helicopters airlifted the DUI suspect to a hospital. A search warrant is not required before a blood sample collected under the exigent circumstances exception is tested for alcohol and drugs.

BACKGROUND FACTS

In May 2015, Inman and Margie Vanderhoof were injured in a motorcycle accident on a
rural road. Inman was the driver of the motorcycle and Vanderhoof was his passenger. Captain Tim Manly, the first paramedic on the scene, observed a motorcycle in a ditch and two people lying down in a driveway approximately 20 to 25 feet away. Captain Manly observed that Inman had facial trauma, including bleeding and abrasions on the face, and a deformed helmet. Based on Inman’s injuries, Captain Manly believed that the accident was a high-trauma incident.

Captain Manly learned from a bystander that Inman had been unconscious for approximately five minutes after the collision before regaining consciousness. Manly
administered emergency treatment to Inman, which included placing Inman in a C-Spine, a device designed to immobilize the spine to prevent paralysis.

While Captain Manly provided Inman with treatment, Sergeant Galin Hester of the Washington State Patrol contacted Vanderhoof, who complained of pelvic pain. Sergeant Hester spoke with Inman and smelled intoxicants on him.

Later, Jefferson County Sheriff’s Deputy Brandon Przygocki arrived on the scene and observed a motorcycle in a ditch with significant front-end damage.  He contacted Inman in the ambulance and, smelling alcohol, asked whether Inman had been drinking and driving. Inman admitted he had been driving the motorcycle and that he had been drinking before he drove.

Deputy Przygocki believed he had probable cause to believe Inman was driving under the influence. Helicopters came to airlift Inman and Vanderhoof to the nearest trauma center. Deputy Przygocki knew that preparation of a search warrant affidavit takes 30-45 minutes. There was no reliable cell phone coverage in the rural area. Deputy Przygocki conducted a warrantless blood draw after reading a special evidence warning to Inman informing him that he was under arrest and that a blood sample was being seized to determine the concentration of alcohol in his blood.

There is a process by which a search warrant for a blood draw may be obtained
telephonically and executed by an officer at the hospital to which Inman was being transported. However, this process is problematic and, in the experience of Officer Hester, had never worked in the past.

TRIAL COURT PROCEDURES

Inman was charged with vehicular assault while under the influence and filed a motion to
suppress evidence of the warrantless blood draw. He argued that the implied consent statute authorized a warrantless blood draw but that the implied consent statute was not constitutional, so there was no valid authority for the blood draw. He also argued that the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement did not justify a warrantless blood draw in this case.

In response, the State argued that Inman’s blood was lawfully drawn pursuant to the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement.

The trial court heard testimony from six witnesses, who testified consistently with the
factual findings summarized above. The trial court orally ruled that exigent circumstances justified the blood draw and later entered written findings of fact and conclusions of law.

Inman filed a reconsideration motion. He argued that there was no probable cause for DUI. He also argued that, even assuming that exigent circumstances justified the warrantless blood draw, a warrant was needed to test the blood. The State disagreed.

The trial court denied Inman’s reconsideration motion. The trial court concluded that Deputy Przygocki had probable cause to believe Inman had committed a DUI. In addition, the trial court concluded that the warrantless blood draw was justified under the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement. Finally, the trial court concluded that because the blood was lawfully seized under exigent circumstances, no warrant was required to test the blood. After a stipulated facts trial, the trial court found Inman guilty of vehicular assault. Inman appealed.

COURT’S CONCLUSIONS AND ANALYSIS

  1. The Arrest Was Supported by Probable Cause.

The Court of Appeals reasoned that under both the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and article I, section 7 of the Washington Constitution, an arrest is lawful only when supported by probable cause. Probable cause exists when the arresting officer, at the time of the arrest, has knowledge of facts sufficient to cause a reasonable officer to believe that an offense has been committed. Whether probable cause exists depends on the totality of the circumstances.

Here, Deputy Przygocki had probable cause to believe Inman had committed a DUI. When Deputy Przygocki arrived on the scene, he observed a motorcycle in a ditch with significant front-end damage and, after running the license plates, knew the vehicle belonged to Inman. Deputy Przygocki learned from Sergeant Hester that Inman was in the ambulance and smelled of alcohol. Deputy Przygocki then contacted Inman in the ambulance, and Inman admitted he had been driving the motorcycle and that he had been drinking before he drove.

“Based on these facts, Deputy Przygocki knew that Inman was driving the motorcycle after drinking alcohol when he crashed. This knowledge is sufficient to cause a reasonable officer to believe that Inman was driving a motor vehicle under the influence of alcohol,” said the Court of Appeals.

2. Exigent Circumstances Supported a Warrantless Blood Draw.

The Court of Appeals reasoned that a warrantless search is impermissible under both article I, section 7 of the Washington Constitution and the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, unless an exception to the warrant requirement authorizes the search. Drawing a person’s blood for alcohol testing is a search triggering these constitutional protections. A warrantless search is allowed if exigent circumstances exist.  The exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement applies where the delay necessary to obtain a warrant is not practical because the delay would permit the destruction of evidence.

“The natural dissipation of an intoxicating substance in a suspect’s blood may be a factor in determining whether exigent circumstances justify a warrantless blood search, but courts determine exigency under the totality of the circumstances on a case-by-case basis.”

The Court of Appeals held that under the circumstances, obtaining a warrant was not practical. Inman and Vanderhoof were both injured from a motorcycle accident that resulted in significant front-end damage to the motorcycle, which was found in a ditch. Both Inman and Vanderhoof received emergency medical services, and Inman was receiving treatment for possible spine injuries. At the time of the blood draw, helicopters were coming to airlift Inman and Vanderhoof to the nearest hospital. It would have taken at least 45 minutes to prepare and obtain judicial approval for a search warrant. Deputy Przygocki lacked reliable cell phone coverage in the rural area, so obtaining a telephonic warrant may have been a challenge.

CONCLUSION

The Court of Appeals concluded that the trial court did not err in denying Inman’s suppression motion. First, there was probable cause to arrest Inman for DUI. Second, exigent circumstances existed to authorize a warrantless blood draw. Third, the implied consent statute does not bar a warrantless search under exigent circumstances. Finally, a legal blood draw under the exigent circumstances exception allows testing of the blood without a warrant when there is probable cause to arrest for DUI.

My opinion? Exigent circumstances are one of many arguments that the government uses to get around search warrant requirements. Contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges involving DUI, blood draws, or exigent circumstances which arguably circumvent the need for officers to obtain search warrants. In difficult cases like the one described above, competent legal counsel is definitely needed to protect constitutional rights against unlawful search and seizure.

Driverless Cars for Crime?

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Informative article by Tim Johnson of McClatchy DC Bureau reports that driverless cars could potentially be used by criminals, hackers and terrorists who want to employ them for mayhem and criminal purposes.

“Self-driving cars may enable new crimes that we can’t even imagine today,” said Patrick Lin, director of the Ethics + Emerging Sciences Group at California Polytechnic University.

Johnson reports that the manufacture of self-driving cars is already underway among major automakers and Silicon Valley tech giants, and a handful of current models allow limited hands-free driving and even park themselves. Before long, experts say, totally autonomous vehicles will hit the roads, starting with taxis and fleet delivery vehicles.

The clearly visible potential danger, Lin and others say, focuses on vulnerability to hackers who could turn driverless autos into vehicles for mayhem if not into weapons themselves.

CAN ELECTRONIC CARS BE “TAMPER-PROOF?”

Lots of questions remain over whether the electronic systems of self-driving vehicles can be made tamperproof, and if humans aboard will be able to override if systems go haywire.

Some engineers say glitches are common and adoption is likely to be gradual.

“Most people don’t understand how easy it is to hack into a driverless car, and then basically steer it off course,” said Dr. Mary Cummings, a former Navy fighter pilot who heads the Humans and Autonomy Laboratory at Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering.

Cummings said she views hackers as a greater threat than criminals or terrorists when it comes to autonomous vehicles.

“There’s no way I’d put my kid in a driverless car right now,” Cummings said.

THE FBI’s CONCERNS

Johnson reports that the FBI, in an unclassified report obtained by The Guardian in 2014, voiced concerned about how “game changing” autonomous cars may become for criminals, hackers and terrorists, turning the vehicles into more potentially lethal weapons than they are today. An FBI spokesperson did not immediately respond to a query about the impact of autonomous cars on law enforcement.

“The FBI is already worried about robo-getaway drivers, which frees up a suspect to shoot back,” Lin said. “Criminals might be able to make a better escape, if a road full of self-driving cars will always move out of the way when you threaten a collision.”

Criminals might commandeer self-driving vehicles and trap passengers inside until they pay a ransom, Lin said, or use camera-equipped models to case robbery locations over longer periods since the cars don’t need to eat or sleep. They can ditch accomplice drivers, who often have loose lips, as they conduct crimes.

Society still has to decide how much invasive technology it will permit in self-driving cars in the name of safety, experts said. Should they contain sensors to detect explosives or narcotics to halt terrorism and crime? Cameras to record what happens inside the vehicles?

“If law enforcement pulls over an empty self-driving car that’s carrying contraband, they can likely track down the user,” Lin said. “Cars aren’t as disposable as burner phones.”

HACKERS & TERRORISTS

Johnson reports that fears that hackers or terrorists could commandeer vehicles captivate the common imagination, fueled by Hollywood. Last year’s hit “The Fate of the Furious,” which tallied $1.1 billion in box office earnings, portrayed elite hackers guiding hundreds of cars speeding down New York’s Seventh Avenue, turning them into battering rams.

A less cinematic scenario, experts say, is that terrorists might use only one or two autonomous vehicles in an attack, perhaps blocking a tunnel leading into a metropolis to divert attention from a pending attack elsewhere in the city.

Terrorists might seek to program autonomous vehicles to carry out attacks far in the future, with explosives or as a weapon to plow into crowds.

“Can I instruct a car to do something a year in advance? What if I’ve been dead for most of that year?” asked Martin C. Libicki, an information technology and national security expert.

Such fears tend to eclipse consideration of how self-driving vehicles are bound to lead to a steady, dramatic drop in traffic fatalities. In 2016, 37,461 people died in traffic accidents.

“All of these things are evaluated through a political filter. Nobody writes headlines about the person who didn’t die in an auto accident. Everybody will write headlines about the person who died because of a self-driving car,” Libicki said.

The vast majority of fatalities are caused by drivers who are distracted, drunk, not wearing seat belts, sleepy or otherwise not paying full attention.

“Ninety-four percent of all crashes have an element of human error. We’re talking about enormously significant numbers,” said David Strickland, counsel for the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, a group representing companies like Ford, Uber, Lyft and Volvo developing autonomous vehicles.

“This is going to sound cold hearted,” began Arthur Rizer, director of criminal justice at R Street Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, but the terrorist danger from autonomous vehicles “is minute compared to the lives that we will save just from reducing traffic accidents.”

Rizer said police departments across the country might face a drop in income as traffic fines and tickets decrease. Self-driving vehicles will be programmed to obey traffic laws. Traffic tickets cost drivers an average of $150.

“Revenue will plummet. Also, court revenues will plummet because courts make a lot of their money off of fees,” said Rizer, a former police officer and Justice Department prosecutor. Rizer said reducing the focus of police on traffic violations will certainly be part of a changing landscape for police forces brought about by autonomous vehicles. But he said police, too, will be freed somewhat from traffic patrols.

Yet to be seen is whether law enforcement will be empowered with remote “kill switches” for officers to use if they deem a self-driving vehicle to be operating suspiciously.

Lin concurred that as resources shift, police tactics will also need to shift.

“The police will no longer have a pretext for stopping a car if the vehicle never speeds, never drives recklessly, and so on,” Lin said. “Resources for highway patrols could be shifted to more targeted operations, if fewer traffic cops are needed.”

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.

 

 

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.