Columbus OVI/DUI Attorney Blog

Articles Posted in DUI/OVI Constitutional issues

When authorities found Donna Wardell in her Chevrolet Impala, the car was upside-down, held in the air by part of the utility pole she just hit (see the story at app.com).  Medics pulled her out of the car through the windshield and rushed her to the hospital.  The medical team determined the crash was the result of a seizure caused by a brain tumor.  Wardell did not know about the tumor:  she learned of it in the hospital.  She later learned something else:  she was being charged with DWI because, when the medics removed Wardell from her car, they observed the odor of alcohol.

Ambulance at accident scene

The odor of alcohol.  Based on that evidence alone, a police officer charged Wardell with DWI (called OVI in Ohio).  It was the only evidence suggesting Wardell might be under the influence of alcohol.  Upon closer examination, however, the odor of alcohol really is not evidence she was under the influence.  At most, it’s evidence she consumed alcohol.  There is no way to tell from the odor how much alcohol she consumed and whether that alcohol was affecting her ability to drive.

Her ability to drive was not affected by alcohol, as there was essentially no alcohol in her blood.  A toxicology report showed her blood alcohol concentration was .001.  At that level, the alcohol did not cause the crash.  Another hospital record concluded the crash was the result of a medical accident:  a seizure caused by the tumor.

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It’s Independence Day. We’re celebrating our freedom, and we’re celebrating everything which makes the U.S.A. a great nation. One thing which makes this nation great is it’s ultimately governed by laws, not people. The framework for our laws is the Constitution, and the part of the Constitution which guarantees much of the freedom we’re celebrating today is the Bill Of Rights. The founders of this nation put their lives on the line for that freedom. Soldiers in our military protect the country and preserve our freedom from foreign oppression. But who is protecting our freedom from domestic oppression and preserving the liberties promised by the Bill Of Rights?

Flag of United States

We enjoy our individual rights. We don’t want law enforcement breaking into our homes and seizing our possessions without a warrant: we want the freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. We don’t want officers beating suspects until they confess: we want the freedom from self-incrimination. We don’t want the government summarily convicting people of crimes in a one-sided secret proceeding: we want a public trial by jury in which the process is fair.

 

To deter the government from violating Constitutional rights, we use the exclusionary rule. If officers break into a defendant’s house and seize the murder weapon without a warrant, testimony regarding that murder weapon is excluded from trial. If an officer beats a suspect until he confesses, that confession is excluded from trial. The immediate result may be the defendant whose rights were violated is acquitted of a crime he committed. The long-term result is law enforcement is generally deterred from violating citizens’ individual rights.

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Suppose you are driving around Columbus on I-270 and an officer pulls you over for speeding. The officer gets out of his cruiser and walks up to your car. When the officer reaches your window, you see on his uniform he is from the Cincinnati Police Department. ‘That’s odd’, you think, ‘why is an officer from Cincinnati making a traffic stop in Columbus?’ Good question. A better question is this: does that traffic stop violate your Constitutional rights?

Officer holding cell phoneAn officer from the Cincinnati Police Department does not have statutory authority to make a traffic stop for a minor misdemeanor in Columbus. According to Ohio statutory law, an officer only has such authority within the geographic boundaries of the political subdivision employing the officer. Therefore, the Cincinnati officer’s stop for a minor traffic offense in Columbus violates Ohio law. The question still remains whether the officer’s violation of the law is also a violation of the driver’s Constitutional rights.

The answer is ‘yes’, according to the Ohio Supreme Court. In a decision released a few days ago, the Court held a traffic stop for a minor misdemeanor offense made without statutory authority to do so violates Article I, Section 14 of the Ohio Constitution. While the stop may not violate the United States Constitution, it violates the Ohio Constitution.

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Imagine you are driving home on a central Ohio freeway after a late dinner and you are pulled over by a police officer. The officer says you were stopped for failing to use your turn signal when you changed lanes. The officer announces he smells the odor of alcohol and asks if you have been drinking. You did have a glass of wine with dinner. The officer then asks you to get out of the car for some field sobriety tests to “make sure you’re okay to drive”. Under what circumstances is the officer justified in doing this?

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This entry is a follow-up to the last entry in this blog, which discussed the case of Rodriguez v. United States.  Rodriguez involved a motorist stopped for a minor traffic violation and detained for a drug dog to arrive. The United States Supreme Court concluded the duration of the stop must not exceed the time necessary to address the traffic violation. The rule clarified in the Rodriguez case is this: any further detention is unlawful unless the officer has a reasonable suspicion the motorist is violating the law.

The rule clarified in Rodriguez is followed in Ohio DUI/OVI cases. If an officer stops a driver for a traffic violation, further detention of the driver for field sobriety testing is unlawful unless the officer has a reasonable suspicion the driver is under the influence. The issue often litigated is what constitutes a “reasonable suspicion”.

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If a police officer stops you for a minor traffic violation, how long should the officer be permitted to detain you? Suppose the officer issues you a ticket or a warning for the minor traffic violation and then says he wants you to wait while he has a drug dog sniff your car? What do you say? If you say no, can the officer do it anyway?

These are the questions answered by the United States Supreme Court in the recent case of Rodriguez v. United States. Rodriguez was driving on a Nebraska road when he was stopped by Officer Struble for drifting onto the shoulder of the road for a couple seconds. Officer Struble checked the driver’s license of Rodriguez, then checked the driver’s license of his passenger, then issued a warning for the minor traffic offense. After issuing the warning, Officer Struble asked Rodriguez for permission to walk the police dog around the vehicle. Rodriguez declined.

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This is no police drug dog, it’s my dog Rex. He could be a police dog…if he weren’t so spoiled.

Officer Struble further detained Rodriguez until a backup officer arrived. Struble then walked his K-9 around the vehicle of Rodriquez, and the dog alerted the presence of drugs in the vehicle. This occurred approximately seven or eight minutes after the officer issued the warning for the traffic violation. The officers searched the vehicle and found methamphetamine. Rodriguez’ motion to suppress that evidence was overruled by the trial court, and the trial court’s decision was upheld by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. Rodriguez appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

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If an officer’s testimony about a traffic stop is not corroborated by the officer’s cruiser video, how do judges rule on the justification for a traffic stop? Once a judge makes a ruling, under what circumstances might that ruling be overturned by an appellate court?  A recent case decided by the Tenth District Court of Appeals in Columbus, Ohio illustrates the discretion judges are given regarding evidentiary issues in OVI motion hearings.

The case of State v. Comer was decided in December of 2014. In Comer, the defendant was charged with OVI and filed a motion to suppress evidence. The motion claimed all evidence obtained after the stop of the defendant’s vehicle should be suppressed because the traffic stop was unconstitutional. At the motion hearing, the officer testified she observed the defendant’s vehicle “weaving and crossing the lines” and “almost hit the concrete divider”.

Video camera in cruiser

The video from the officer’s cruiser did not clearly show the defendant’s vehicle crossing the lane line. The defendant argued the video undermined the credibility of the officer, so the judge should find there was no marked lanes violation and therefore no justification for the stop. The prosecution argued the video was inconclusive regarding the marked lanes violation (due to the glare from streetlights and the distance between the cruiser and the defendant’s vehicle), and the officer’s testimony alone was sufficient evidence the defendant crossed the lane line.

 

The trial judge found, based on the officer’s testimony, there was a marked lanes violation justifying the traffic stop. The defendant plead No Contest and appealed the trial court’s decision to the Tenth District Court of Appeals.

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Suppose an officer detains a person for violating a traffic law and it turns out the person really didn’t violate the law: the officer was simply mistaken about what the law says. Until recently, one would expect that any evidence obtained after the mistaken detention would be thrown out. In a recent case, however, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded any evidence obtained after the officer mistakenly detained the person is not excluded from trial, so long as the officer’s mistaken belief about the law was reasonable.

The case is Heien v. North Carolina. A police officer was watching traffic on a road in North Carolina when the officer observed Heien’s Ford Escort pass by. The car was being driven by Maynor Javier Vasquez, and Heien was a passenger. The driver was not driving recklessly, was not speeding, and was not violating the law in any way. The officer followed the car because the driver looked “very stiff and nervous”, then stopped the car for what the officer believed was a brake light violation. The car only had one working brake light, and the officer did not know that North Carolina law only requires one working brake light.

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As the officer was issuing a warning ticket for the broken brake light, the officer became suspicious because the driver and passenger gave inconsistent answers to his questions regarding their destination. The officer asked Heien if the officer could search the vehicle. Heien consented. The officer found cocaine in the vehicle, and Heien was ultimately charged with and convicted of Attempted Drug Trafficking.

Heien’s conviction was reversed by the North Carolina Court of Appeals, but that decision was reversed by the North Carolina Supreme Court. Heien appealed to the United States Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court accepted the case to answer this question: can an officer’s mistake of law give rise to the reasonable suspicion necessary to uphold the seizure under the Fourth Amendment?

The U.S. Supreme Court answers that question in the affirmative. In an opinion written by Chief Justice Roberts, the Court concludes that, if an officer stops a vehicle based on the officer’s mistake of law, and if that mistake is reasonable, the stop is justified under the Fourth Amendment. The Court reasons that people, including law enforcement officers, make mistakes, and an officer’s mistaken belief should only result in evidence being excluded if the officer’s mistaken belief was unreasonable. The Court supports this reasoning with citations to cases from the 1800s. Those cases did not involve the scope of the Fourth Amendment, and the Court’s opinion admits the cases are not on-point. The Court also compares officers’ mistakes of law with officers’ mistakes of fact. There are cases holding a detention may be justified even if an officer made a mistake of fact.

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It won’t win a Pulitzer Prize, it will not be mentioned with the New York Times best sellers, and it will not be at the top of readers’ ‘wish lists’. In fact, most people may not find it very interesting. If you are charged with a DUI/OVI in Ohio, however, this book suddenly becomes a must-read. I’m talking about the new book: I Was Charged With DUI/OVI, Now What?!

I wrote the book to answer the questions most commonly asked by people charged with OVI.Cover image from book.jpg After answering those questions for 17 years, I recently came to the realization there was not a published book designed for individuals charged with OVI in Ohio. I thought it would be helpful to create a book which explains ‘what you need to know before going to court and before hiring an attorney for DUI/OVI in Ohio‘.

The book, published a couple weeks ago, is divided into four parts. The first part reveals what prosecutors need to prove for a person to be found guilty of OVI and outlines the potential consequences of an OVI conviction. The second part addresses the evidence used in OVI cases, including field sobriety tests and blood/breath/urine tests. The third part discusses the court process and its various stages. The fourth part addresses how to find a good OVI lawyer.

The book is available online through Amazon and Barnes & Noble. The suggested retail price of the paperback is $9.95, and the e-book costs about half that. With the percentage I receive in royalties, I may buy a few cups of coffee…. The book is obviously not designed to be a money-maker for me. In fact, I will email a pdf version of the book to anyone who requests it, and I intend to make the paperback available in central Ohio libraries.

The book is designed to help people charged with OVI. People in that position need help, and one way I can help is providing this book. I can’t represent every person who contacts me after being charged with OVI: I typically only accept one new client per week. I certainly can’t field calls from every person who has questions about Ohio OVI laws. I can, however, answer those questions in the form of this low-cost book. I hope the book provides valuable information which is helpful to many people charged with DUI/OVI in Ohio.

We are all urged to call the police if we suspect someone is driving under the influence. This message comes to us in radio and television commercials, on billboards, and on cruiser license plates: 1-800-GRAB-DUI. If someone makes the call, when should the police be permitted to stop the driver based on that informant’s tip alone? This question is a hot topic in Ohio DUI/OVI law this year. Two Ohio appellate courts decided ‘informant tip’ cases last month, and the United States Supreme Court decided one earlier this year.

The two recent Ohio cases of State v. WhemLicense plate of trooper cruiser.jpg and State v. Whitacker have many similarities. In both cases, an informant called the police to report a suspected drunk driver. In both cases, the police stopped the suspected drunk driver without observing any additional evidence the driver was under the influence. In both cases, the defendant filed a motion to suppress evidence and argued the informant tip did not justify the traffic stop. In both cases, the trial judge overruled the defendant’s motion to suppress. In both cases, the defendant appealed to the Court of Appeals.

Whem and Whitacker have different outcomes. In Whem, the Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court the initial stop of the defendant was justified. In Whitacker, the Court of Appeals disagreed with the trial court, concluding the stop of the defendant was illegal.

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If a driver is pulled over and charged with a criminal offense, can the police search through the data on the driver’s cell phone? That question was recently addressed by the United States Supreme Court. The case does not directly involve a DUI/OVI, but it’s definitely worth reporting in this blog. This is a significant case in the area of search and seizure law, and there are frequently search and seizure issues in DUI/OVI cases.

The case is Riley v. California. Riley was stopped for a traffic violation, and he was ultimately arrested for a weapons charge. After Riley’s arrest, an officer searched Riley and seized his cell phone from his pants pocket. Cell phone examination.jpg The officer accessed information on the phone and observed the repeated use of a term associated with a street gang. Later, at the police station, a gang unit detective looked through the digital contents of the phone. The detective found photographs and videos connecting Riley to a gang and implicating Riley in a gang-related shooting.

Riley’s motion to suppress the evidence from his cell phone was denied. The cell phone evidence was used to convict Riley and was also used to enhance Riley’s sentence based on his gang membership. Riley appealed, and the case made its way to the United States Supreme Court. The Court held that police may not search information on cell phones without a search warrant.

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