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Can Circumstantial Evidence Can Be Used to Prove DUI?

If your DUI case goes to trial, the prosecutor must establish 2 very basic elements: that you were operating the vehicle and that you consumed alcohol in excess of the legal limit. To do this, they will cite both testimonial evidence and chemical test evidence. However, this evidence isn't always straightforward.

California Supreme Court Rules on DUI Circumstantial Evidence

In April, the California Supreme Court ruled that circumstantial evidence, including an officer’s observations, can be used to determine a driver’s degree of alcohol impairment.

The case started when Ashley Jourdan Coffey sued the Department of Motor Vehicles when her license was suspended after she pleaded guilty to a “wet reckless” charge.

According to the high court’s ruling, on November 13, 2011, an officer witnessed Coffey swerving on the Costa Mesa Freeway and arrested her. The officer stated that her eyes were red, she wreaked of alcohol, and had trouble completing field sobriety tests. Although she stated she had not been drinking, the officer concluded she was inebriated.

Approximately an hour after being pulled over, Coffey’s blood alcohol content measured .08 percent. Three minutes later, another test indicated it was .09 percent. Coffey agreed to plea bargain to admit misdemeanor reckless driving and then requested a hearing before the DMV to challenge her license suspension.

DMV Hearing to Become More Difficult

At her hearing, Coffey had an expert testify that tests showed her BAC rose while she was in custody, but that it had been below the legal limit at the time of her arrest.

The expert’s testimony was rejected by a DMV hearing officer on the grounds it was not supported by evidence furnished by law enforcement. An appellate court upheld that decision. However, the state’s high court granted a review of the testimony and decided that it should at least have been considered and not rejected. Because the law is equivocal about its application to administrative hearings, the high court did not set a precedent on the issue. The Supreme Court did, however, recommend that the law be clarified to determine whether it applies to administrative hearings and prosecutions equally.

Coffey’s defense believes the ruling could have an influence in criminal prosecutions because a precedent has now been set on how to manage a DUI defense when chemical tests are inconclusive and circumstantial evidence is being considered.

The defense went on to say it can now be asserted that a DMV hearing officer must consider expert testimony as evidence and not immediately reject it. Conversely, he fears more influence might be given to circumstantial evidence and that the DMV hearing officers will consider everything compelling.

How Does This Impact FSTs & Other Evidence?

Additionally, the ruling could set stricter guidelines for the use of field sobriety tests. Namely, that they be used only to determine probable cause prior to arresting a driver and administering blood or breath tests—not grounds to solely prove impairment. The defense feels the ruling could undermine criminal prosecutions based on the impairment statute alone. In a criminal court case, guilt must be shown beyond a reasonable doubt. Unlike an administrative hearing, where guilt can be shown by simply the majority of the evidence.

Marginal or Inconclusive, BAC Still Impacts Hearing

Particularly in cases where the outcome of a BAC test are either very near to the legally allowed limit or inconclusive, the new ruling would allow a DMV license suspension. Many Oakland DUI defense lawyers acknowledged the new ruling will likely make it much harder for those with marginal BAC levels to prove their driving abilities were not compromised while behind the wheel. The Orange County Supreme Court did add a cautionary note regarding the potential for abuse of the ruling; however, many believe Californians will soon see a “ripple effect” in response.

Have questions about DUI cases in Oakland? Talk to the East Bay DUI attorney at the Law Office of Nabiel C. Ahmed.

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