california supreme court holds that circumstantial evidence of intoxication may be considered in dui hearings
A driver was pulled over in Orange County by the CHP when the officer observed her car swerving erratically. Upon contacting the driver, the officer observed indications that she had been drinking alcohol. The officer performed various field sobriety tests on the driver, the result of which further indicated to the officer that the driver was under the influence of alcohol. The driver was placed under arrest and it was determined by a breath test that she had a blood alcohol level near the threshold legal limit of .08%. A later blood draw indicated a blood alcohol level slightly over the limit at .096%.
She exercised her option to have a DMV Administrative Per Se Hearing to challenge the automatic suspension of her driver license. At the hearing, an expert testified on her behalf. According to the expert, the blood alcohol tests suggested that here blood alcohol level was rising and that at the time of the stop, her blood alcohol level was not at the legal limit of .08%. The expert’s testimony is technical and not relevant for purposes here. Suffice it to say that the gist of the driver’s argument was that she introduced evidence of a fact that rebutted the presumption that she was driving under the influence but the administrative hearing officer and the trial court discounted that evidence (the expert’s testimony) in part by relying on the reports made by the CHP officers who stopped her. The Supreme Court was ultimately tasked with deciding whether the trial court erred by considering the circumstantial evidence established by the officers’ reports of their observations. On April 6, 2015, the Supreme Court issued its ruling where it held that the trial court did not err.
While the Supreme Court held that the circumstantial evidence was relevant and admissible, the Supreme Court also cautioned that its decision does not give carte blanche to DMV hearing officers or the trial court to discount expert testimony.
The legal ramifications of this case could help or hurt some drivers arrested for DUI. Some defense attorneys fear the case will open the doors for abuse. These attorneys caution that the decision gives wide latitude to arresting officers to establish evidence in cases where the driver’s blood alcohol level results are at or close to the legal threshold limit of .08%. Other attorneys believe that this might help drivers who test near the threshold limit. Drivers who, for example, test right at .08% but perform well on field sobriety tests and don’t otherwise exhibit circumstantial evidence of intoxication can use that evidence to argue that they were not driving under the influence.
If you are arrested for driving under the influence and your blood alcohol level registers near the threshold level of .08%, you have a very good chance of defeating the charge if other circumstantial evidence does not indicate you were driving under the influence. But if you try to defend this on your own, you can be pretty sure that the DMV and the trial court will render a decision based on the blood alcohol level alone. You will greatly improve your chances if you have an experienced DUI attorney representing you who knows the ins and outs of rebutting the presumption of of driving under the influence.