Introduction to Recent DUI Developments

introduction to recent dui developmentsAround the country, new DUI legislation precedents are emerging in reaction to complicated cases.  Unlike most charges, convicting a DUI requires knowledge (or the appearance of knowledge) of the defendant’s subjective lucidity, something which can usually be achieved through blood or breath tests.  However, in order to legally administer these tests, a police officer must have probable cause to arrest the driver.  DUI legislation changes are predicated on this dichotomy; a maintenance between police power and civilian rights.  This article will discuss some of the important recent cases, and how they will affect DUI charges in the future.

Heien v North Carolina:

In late 2014, the United States Supreme Court set an important precedent in reaction to an unjustified traffic stop violation.  In 2009, North Carolina police sergeant Matt Darisse stopped a driver by the name of Nicholas Heien for a broken taillight.  After pulling him over, he gained consent to search the vehicle, where he then found illegal drugs.  In the state of North Carolina, a single broken taillight is not itself illegal, effectively making the traffic stop invalid, and thereby, the illegal drug evidence invalid as well under the fourth amendment “fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine.”  This doctrine, established as an extension of a 1920 ruling, stipulates the exclusion of illegally obtained evidence in court.

recent dui developments and Heien v North CarolinaInstead of ruling based upon this fourth amendment doctrine, Chief Justice Roberts instead justifies the stop on the basis that “a reasonable person could have misconstrued the brake light statute.”  In effect, this ruling greatly enhances police power and erodes fourth amendment rights in regard to search and seizure.  Even though this ruling will likely not apply to police ignorance of more common laws, it still sets a dangerous precedent in regard to how police can behave.  If an officer can arrest someone without probable cause using ignorance to the law as an excuse, where is the line?  What standards determine what laws a reasonable person should know?  Moreover, shouldn’t police be expected to understand the law at a higher level to the average reasonable person, since their entire job is to enforce it?  Chief Justice Roberts asserts that there must be reasonableness in an officer’s ability to interpret the law, and that the single brake light falls under the umbrella of this allowed interpretation.  Yet, in North Carolina statute 20-129, there are several references which explicitly state that drivers legally only need a single brake light.  What is the point of these laws if they are to be ignored?

It is unknown how this case will affect DUI charges in the future.  Even within the Supreme Court there were dissenters to this ruling, most notably Justice Sotomayor, who stated that: “the actual state of the law should control rather than a reasonable misunderstanding of the law.”  In this dissent, she concisely states the over-arching problem with this ruling; namely, that laws are on the books for a reason, and that ignorance to these laws does not invalidate them, especially for those who are meant to enforce them.

Birchfield v North Dakota:

In an extremely recent June 23, 2016 decision, the Supreme Court ruled to distinguish between blood and breath tests in regard to DUI.  This decision culminated on the back of several contentious cases which occurred around the country, but primarily in response to the Danny Birchfield case in Morton County, North Dakota.  Danny Birchfield drove into a ditch, and when cops arrived on the scene, tested him positive for alcohol intoxication using both field sobriety and breathalyzer tests.  After being arrested, he was asked to complete a chemical blood test which he refused in violation of State law, resulting in an additional misdemeanor charge.  See the article on recent developments in DUI defense.

recent dui developments Birchfield v North DakotIn a similar case in St. Paul, Minnesota, William Robert Bernard and two friends were hauling their boat onto their truck when police arrived.  Bernard quickly admitted to being intoxicated, but denied driving the truck or planning to drive the truck, despite the keys being in his hands.  After being arrested on suspicion of driving while impaired, Bernard refused a requested blood test, in violation of State law.  He received two counts of first-degree test refusal.

Both men, along with others, asserted that penalizing the refusal of chemical tests is a violation of the fourth amendment’s right against unreasonable search and seizure.  In what many consider a surprising decision, the Supreme Court decided to support the defendants’ assertion that a blood test is too violating to be considered mandated under State law.  The Court did, however, uphold the breath test incident to arrest mandated by many states’ laws, a decision predicated on standards of physical intrusion.  For a breath test, one need only place a small device between their lips, whereas for a blood test, a needle must pierce the skin.  The Court also distinguished between the substances themselves; breath is naturally expelled and must be expelled to remain alive, while blood remains beneath the skin unless intentionally gathered.

Because the Court decided that “blood tests are significantly more invasive than breath tests,” they decided to rule that warrantless blood tests are unconstitutional, while warrantless breath tests are not.  Although this is a victory for the citizen in the dichotomy between citizen and cop, a couple of Supreme Court justices believe the ruling does not go far enough.  Justice Sotomayor remarked on the case that: “Because no governmental interest categorically makes it impractical for an officer to obtain a warrant before measuring a driver’s alcohol level, the Fourth Amendment prohibits such searches without a warrant, unless exigent circumstances exist in a particular case.”  Exigent circumstances refer to exceptions which allow a police officer to forego the requirement of a warrant if they have probable cause and no sufficient time.  In essence, Justice Sotomayor is rejecting a monolithic interpretation of fourth amendment rights, asserting that warrantless breath tests should only be allowed in certain cases, pursuant to the exigent circumstances exception to the search warrant requirement under the fourth amendment.  The ruling should not be all-encompassing.

Navarette v California:

In a controversial and heavily divided 2014 case, the Supreme Court ruled that 9-1-1 calls can alone constitute probable cause for a traffic stop.  One day in 2009, an anonymous 9-1-1 call was made by a woman asserting that a certain vehicle (Navarette) almost ran her off the road.  When police located the car in question, they did not witness any violation of the California Motor Vehicle Code, but pulled the vehicle over regardless solely based on the 9-1-1 call.  Once they stopped the car, they smelled fresh marijuana, and subsequently, discovered over thirty pounds of it in the bed of the truck.

The final opinion of the Supreme Court was heavily divided; five justices for and four against.  The final decision to allow 9-11 calls as probable cause was predicated on the belief that nobody would have reason to abuse the 9-11 system, so we should assume all calls made through this system are legitimate attempts to enhance safety.  Justice Scalia dissented to this opinion, believing the ruling to be a “freedom-destroying cocktail consisting of two parts patent falsity: (1) that anonymous 9-11 reports of traffic violations are reliable as long as they correctly identify a car and its location and (2) that a single instance of careless or reckless driving necessarily supports a reasonable suspicion of drunkenness.”

Navarette v California and recent dui developmentsIn the above statement, Justice Scalia is commenting on this ruling’s role in weakening fourth amendment rights.  He rejects the assertion that 9-11 as a system is infallible, where every call is made devoid of ulterior motives.  He also raises the possibility of malicious intent, where a 9-11 caller can target a particular person regardless of actual driving conditions and with no real personal risk.  The ruling creates a situation where callers are invulnerable; even if they are not anonymous, there is no way for police to corroborate a reported traffic violation.  The ability to use these myriad calls as probable cause without any way to gauge their actual value is an extreme limit on fourth amendment rights.

However, the presiding opinion is not without merit.  If officers were not able to pull people over based on 9-11 tips, would this limit their ability to police effectively?  Most justices believed this to be true, and that any negatives in regard to false calls would pale in comparison to enhanced safety.  However, it is not only false calls with which we should be concerned.  Say a driver swerves in the lane once accidentally and another driver reports them to the police.  Should this one incident justify probable cause for drunkenness, when there is absolutely no evidence save for the call?  As with the other cases, Navarette v California alters the dichotomy between the police and the citizenry.  But perhaps even more importantly, this case illustrates our society’s perpetual balancing act between safety and freedom, where one must always suffer at the expense of the other.

For the most part, it seems that recent DUI legislation is prioritizing safety-and thus police rights- more than personal freedoms.  Driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol is an epidemic in this country, with thousands of deaths per year, so it makes sense that the Supreme Court would rule in this vein.  Moreover, the cases listed above were only cases in the first place because the driver did in-fact do something wrong.  After all, it makes it harder to rule in favor of a citizen when that citizen was transporting thirty pounds of marijuana.

However, this does not mean that officers should be able to break our fourth amendment rights without consequence.  Standards must be implemented which best align safety and freedom considerations.  As mentioned above, Justice Sotomayor posits that this can best be achieved by doing away with universal DUI standards and instead forcing officers to follow the exigent circumstances exception in the fourth amendment if they wish to operate without a warrant.  With so much potential for police corruption, eliminating the concrete standards by which they operate (in certain regards) could prove to be an agreeable confluence between safety and fourth amendment freedom.

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