Articles Posted in Defending the Case

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An appeal in the Pennsylvania Superior Court claimed that a field sobriety test conducted on a snow-covered road, along with breath testing conducted without the 20-minute observation period required by Pennsylvania law, were insufficient to support a conviction for driving under the influence (DUI). The defendant/appellant in Commonwealth v. Favinger challenged the sufficiency of the evidence against him and the legality of the traffic stop that led to his arrest. The Superior Court ultimately affirmed the verdict and sentence, but its opinion offers a useful overview of the different ways that prosecutors may establish that a defendant was impaired by alcohol in a DUI case.

A state trooper pulled the defendant over at about 3:20 a.m. on January 29, 2011. The trooper testified that the defendant continued to travel about half a mile after the trooper activated his emergency lights, finally stopping in a driveway. He claimed that he detected the odor of alcohol, and that the defendant’s eyes were “bloodshot and glassy.” The defendant agreed to field sobriety testing, which the trooper claimed he failed. Breath testing conducted after the defendant’s arrest showed blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.128 percent. The defendant was later convicted of DUI–general impairment and DUI–high rate of alcohol.

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A DUI defendant appealed her conviction of driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI), highest rate of alcohol, to the Pennsylvania Superior Court, claiming that the charge filed against her was defective. Pennsylvania law and the U.S. Constitution require prosecutors to provide specific information to defendants, including the date of the alleged offense, to allow them to prepare a defense. The defendant claimed that the information charging her with DUI stated the date of the offense incorrectly and that she therefore lacked adequate notice of the charge against her. The Superior Court, ruling in Commonwealth v. McKee, denied the appeal. It held that prosecutors supplemented the information prior to trial and that the error did not prejudice the defendant’s case.

The defendant did not dispute the facts that directly resulted in her DUI conviction. Police stopped her vehicle at about 11:40 p.m. on November 21, 2011, placed her under arrest, and transported her to a State Police barracks. A trooper administered a breath test at about 12:15 a.m., which reportedly showed blood alcohol content (BAC) greater than 0.16 percent. Prosecutors filed an information charging her with DUI at the highest rate of alcohol in March 2012. The information stated that the offense occurred on November 22, 2011, not November 21.

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A Pennsylvania man appealed his conviction of driving under the influence (DUI)—incapable of safely driving and DUI—highest rate of alcohol, arguing that the arresting officers lacked reasonable suspicion of a crime when they stopped his car, and that the verdict was against the weight of the evidence. The Pennsylvania Superior Court ruled, in Commonwealth v. Landis, that the defendant was entitled to a new trial on the “weight of the evidence” argument. It held that the trial court abused its discretion by incorrectly applying the law.

Pennsylvania State Troopers pulled the defendant over on State Route 35 at 2:40 a.m. on April 4, 2010, after allegedly witnessing his vehicle weave within its lane and cross the center double-yellow line several times. The defendant admitted to having several drinks. The troopers arrested him and took him to a nearby hospital, where a medical technician drew blood and conducted a single chemical test using an Avid Axsym machine. The test showed blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.164 percent.

At trial, the defendant filed a motion to suppress for lack of reasonable suspicion, which the trial court denied. He challenged the reliability of the Avid Axsym machine. The medical technician testified that the machine had a ten percent margin of error, which was not considered in its BAC report. The defendant argued that the Avid Axsym machine was less reliable than a gas chromatography test, and that his BAC result based on a single test was unreliable. A jury found him guilty, and the trial court sentenced him to a prison sentence of ninety days to five years less one day. Continue reading

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The question of whether an appellate court could reverse a DUI conviction based on its own interpretation of the evidence recently came before the Indiana Supreme Court, demonstrating the critical importance of challenging police testimony as early as possible. The defendant argued that video footage from a sheriff’s deputy’s vehicle camera contradicted the deputy’s testimony, making the traffic stop unconstitutional and requiring the court to dismiss the case. The trial court disagreed, but the appellate court found the video evidence compelling. The state supreme court affirmed the verdict ruled in Robinson v. Indiana, ruling that it should defer to the trial court’s findings of fact in the absence of a significant constitutional concern.

A sheriff’s deputy testified that he pulled the defendant over after observing her vehicle veer off the right side of the road twice at about 1:00 a.m. on October 15, 2011. A video camera in the deputy’s car recorded the stop. The defendant reportedly failed three field sobriety tests, and she admitted to drinking one beer and to having marijuana on her person. A chemical test at the jail showed blood alcohol content of 0.09 percent, just above the legal limit. Prosecutors charged her with DUI and several other offenses.

The defendant moved to suppress the evidence obtained from the traffic stop and to dismiss the case. Two U.S. Supreme Court cases, 1968’s Terry v. Ohio and 1996’s Ornelas v. United States, have established that the Fourth Amendment requires “reasonable suspicion” of a crime in order to stop someone’s vehicle. The defendant alleged that the video footage from the deputy’s car showed that her vehicle never veered off the road like the deputy claimed, and that he therefore never had reasonable suspicion. Continue reading

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A Pennsylvania judge ruled in February that prosecutors had produced sufficient evidence to support two counts of aggravated assault by vehicle while driving under the influence, which arose from a single-car accident in October 2010. The defendant had moved to dismiss the aggravated assault charges, claiming that the injuries did not rise to the level of “serious bodily injury” as required by Pennsylvania law. The aggravated assault by vehicle statute presents another interesting issue for prosecutors, as it states that a defendant must have acted “negligently.” The question of whether negligence, or criminal negligence, is an essential element of this offense remains unsettled by Pennsylvania courts.

According to the Pittsburgh Tribune, the defendant, who was a college sophomore at the time, was driving with two passengers in his car on October 15, 2010. He was traveling at about sixty-five miles per hour, according to police, when the car struck a tree. Court records state that one passenger suffered multiple injuries, including a broken leg; while the other passenger suffered a fractured spine and head injuries. Police claim that the defendant had blood alcohol content of 0.178 percent.

Prosecutors charged the defendant with driving under the influence – general impairment, as well as first-offense driving under the influence as a minor. They also filed two charges of aggravated assault by vehicle while driving under the influence, as well as reckless driving, unsafe speed, purchase of an alcoholic beverage by a minor, and operating a motor vehicle as a minor with alcohol in their system. The defendant moved to dismiss the aggravated assault charges, claiming that the injuries did not present “substantial risk of death,” “permanent disfigurement,” or extended loss of use of a limb or organ, as required by statute. The court disagreed. Continue reading

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A defendant was convicted of DUI in the Court of Common Pleas of Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania after a bench trial. He appealed the conviction and sentence to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania, questioning whether the arresting officer had probable cause to request a blood test, and whether the court violated the defendant’s due process rights by denying him a jury trial. The court dismissed the appeal, however, because the defendant did not raise these issues with the trial court, and therefore did not preserve them for appeal. Comm. v. Halcovage, No. 564 MDA 2013, memorandum (Penn. Super. Ct., Jan. 7, 2014).

According to the court’s memorandum, a police officer stopped the defendant’s vehicle just after 11:00 p.m. on July 15, 2011 after observing him speeding. The officer claimed that he observed telltale signs of intoxication, including “red, blood-shot and glassy eyes” and “a strong odor of an alcoholic beverage.” The defendant allegedly admitting to drinking “one or two beers.” He allegedly failed a field sobriety test, and a portable breath testing device showed blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.13 percent. The officer took him to the emergency room at Schuylkill Medical Center, where he consented to having blood drawn. The blood sample also showed 0.13 percent BAC.

The defendant was charged with DUI – general impairment and DUI – high rate of alcohol. The court conducted a bench trial on December 6, 2012 and found him guilty of both DUI charges. On March 5, 2013, it sentenced him to forty-eight hours to six months in prison. The defendant submitted a statement of error, as required by Pennsylvania Rule of Appellate Procedure 1925(b), identifying five points of error. The trial court ruled on all five points, and the defendant filed an appeal. Continue reading

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The state can charge a person with DUI even without direct evidence of intoxication, as demonstrated by the case of a Texas man who was arrested and charged with DUI despite negative breath and blood tests. Prosecutors eventually dismissed all of the charges against him, but police continue to defend the decision to arrest and charge him, arguing that he could have been impaired by a substance that did not show up on the blood test. Pennsylvania law states that blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.08 percent or higher constitutes “impairment,” but it also prohibits driving while under the influence of any amount of alcohol or a controlled substance that makes safe driving impossible. Proving impairment is generally easiest for the state with BAC evidence, but it is not necessarily required.

The arrest occurred on January 13, 2013 in Austin, Texas, when police pulled the man over for allegedly running a stop sign. He was taken into custody and given a breath test, which showed BAC of 0.00 percent. He admitted to having one drink earlier, but the test results suggest that no significant amount of alcohol was present in his bloodstream. He agreed to submit to a blood test, which police say screens for seven different drugs, including alcohol. The results were not available for several months, but also showed no measurable amount of any of the seven drugs.

The man was nevertheless charged with DUI, known in Texas as DWI. Police claimed that he failed a field sobriety test at the time of his arrest, with official reports stating that the arresting officer observed him swaying and needing to use an arm to support himself while standing on one leg. This behavior could have multiple other possible explanations besides intoxication, such as a condition affecting one’s equilibrium or simple fatigue, but prosecutors apparently felt this was enough to support a DUI case. More than a year after the arrest, they finally dismissed all charges. Continue reading

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A late 2012 court ruling questioned the calibration methods used by Pennsylvania law enforcement for breathalyzer devices, and seemed to cast doubt on DUI cases all over the state. Comm. v. Schildt, No. 2191 CR 2010, opinion (Pa. Ct. Comm. Pleas, Dauphin Co., Dec. 31, 2012). Unfortunately, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania reversed the decision on procedural grounds in a nonprecedential opinion in September 2013. The trial court’s analysis still offers an important glimpse of something DUI lawyers have known for a long time: prosecutors rely on technology that requires, but does not always receive, regular maintenance and calibration in order to provide accurate information.

The defendant was reportedly involved in a single-car accident shortly after 2:00 a.m. on January 16, 2010. A state trooper arrested him after he admitted to having multiple alcoholic drinks. At the police station, a breath test was administered after a twenty-minute observation period, but within two hours of the time he was driving. The device used had last been calibrated and tested on January 9, according to police. Two breath tests yielded results of 0.208% and 0.214% breath alcohol content.

Prosecutors charged the defendant with driving under the influence at the highest rate of alcohol, 0.16% or higher. 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 3802(c). The defendant filed a motion to quash the charges, arguing that the breath testing could not scientifically establish blood alcohol content above 0.15%, and that therefore prosecutors could not prove an essential element of their case. Continue reading

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The Superior Court of Pennsylvania vacated the sentence in a case involving a range of charges, from vehicular homicide to driving under the influence (DUI), finding that the trial court failed to merge the offenses when pronouncing sentence. Commonwealth v. Tanner, 61 A.3d 1043 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2013). The “merger doctrine” requires a court, when sentencing a defendant for multiple convictions, to combine all offenses that arise from a single act and impose a sentence based on the most serious offense. In practice, this means that a court cannot impose multiple consecutive prison sentences if the convictions are all based on one act or incident.

According to the court’s order, the accident in question occurred in December 2010. The defendant’s vehicle reportedly crossed into oncoming traffic and collided head-on with another vehicle. Two passengers in the other vehicle suffered serious injuries, and one of them died several days later. A Pennsylvania State Trooper who arrived at the scene later testified that the defendant’s eyes were “bloodshot and glassy” and that he could smell alcohol on her breath. A blood sample taken from the defendant about one hour after the accident reportedly showed a blood alcohol content of 0.18%.

The defendant pleaded guilty to three charges: homicide by motor vehicle while driving under the influence of alcohol, for the death of the passenger in the other vehicle; aggravated assault by vehicle while driving under the influence of alcohol, for the injury to another passenger in that vehicle; and driving under the influence at the “highest rate” of alcohol, for the underlying act of driving with a blood alcohol level of 0.16% or higher. The trial court sentenced her to three consecutive sentences, one for each offense, at the “aggravated range” allowed by law. This resulted in a total prison sentence of between 71 and 142 months in prison. The defendant appealed the court’s denial of her post-sentence motion. Continue reading

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Driving while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, commonly known as “driving under the influence” or just “DUI,” is a serious offense under Pennsylvania law. Penalties can range from a loss of driving privileges to a lengthy prison sentence, depending on the circumstances. The law in Pennsylvania clearly defines the obligations of police and prosecutors in any case of alleged DUI, and it is critically important for anyone accused of DUI to know their rights. Among the many elements of the offense of DUI that the state must prove, it must provide proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was impaired by alcohol or illegal drugs.

What is “Impairment”?

Pennsylvania law defines “impairment” very broadly as a state in which a driver is “incapable of safely driving, operating or being in actual physical control of the movement of the vehicle.” Police and prosecutors can gather evidence of impairment by testing a person’s blood or breath, or by observing a person’s behavior and testifying about it in court.

Blood alcohol content (BAC), the percentage of alcohol in a person’s bloodstream at a particular time, is considered by the legal system to be a reliable means of determining impairment. Pennsylvania law presumes that a person is impaired if their BAC is 0.08 percent or higher within two hours of driving. For anyone under the age of 21, or anyone driving a school bus, that amount is 0.02 percent. Commercial vehicle drivers are presumed to be impaired with a BAC of 0.04 percent. Continue reading