Articles Posted in DUI/OVI in the news

Over 20,000 DWI cases in New Jersey are being called into question due to problems with the recalibration of breath-testing machines.  According to New Jersey 101.5, Sgt. Marc Dennis skipped a critical step each time he recalibrated the machines.  Plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit now seek to vacate thousands of convictions in which evidence was produced by those breath-testing machines.  Although this debacle occurred in New Jersey, it illustrates the importance of properly maintaining breath-testing machines in Ohio DUI/OVI cases.

Simulator

In Ohio DUI/OVI cases, there is a distinction between a calibration and a calibration check.  When breath-testing machines are built, the machines must be ‘taught’ to identify and quantify alcohol (ethanol).  That ‘teaching’ process is a calibration.  As a machine is being used by a law enforcement agency, the agency periodically runs a test to confirm the machine produces accurate results.  The test is done using a simulator like the one pictured here.  That periodic test is a calibration check.

Calibration checks, also referred to as ‘instrument checks’, are done at least once per week in Ohio.  The weekly instrument checks are conducted by the law enforcement agency which owns and/or operates the breath-testing machine.  Some agencies assign the responsibility to one officer, and, in other agencies, multiple officer share the responsibility of conducting weekly instrument checks.

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Today’s report regarding the conduct of a forensic scientist employed by the state of Ohio demonstrates the danger of the government enforcing laws without effective checks and balances.  Forensic scientist G. Michele Yezzo worked for over 30 years as a laboratory technician for the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI).  During that time, she analyzed evidence in criminal cases and testified in court regarding those analyses.  The feature story in The Columbus Dispatch says she now, “stands accused of slanting evidence to help cops and prosecutors build their cases.”

http://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-photo-blood-test-hand-latex-glove-holding-sample-vial-front-form-image37079485According to the newspaper report, the BCI employee stretched the truth in her analyses to satisfy law enforcement.  She even reportedly went so far as asking police officers “What do you need the evidence to say?”  Her work as a government scientist led to hundreds of criminal convictions, including serious cases involving murder and rape.  This forensic scientist’s lack of credibility calls many of those convictions into question.  It also brings attention to the issue of forensic testing in Ohio DUI/OVI cases.

In Ohio OVI cases, forensic testing at crime labs is used to detect and measure alcohol and drugs in blood and urine samples.  If a driver is arrested and the officer suspects the driver is under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs of abuse, the officer asks the driver to submit a sample of breath, blood or urine.  Breath samples are analyzed on-the-spot by a breath-testing machine.  Blood and urine samples are sent to a crime lab for analysis.

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Carrie Underwood’s plea, “Jesus, take the wheel” is being replaced with the hands free command, “Siri, take the wheel”. According to a recent forecast by Business Insider, there will be 10 million self-driving vehicles on the road by 2020. With that in mind, I have been asked several times, “Are you concerned driverless cars will hurt your business as a DUI lawyer?”

Driverless car interior with champaign bottles

I’m not. First, I do not expect a large number of completely self-driving cars on the road before my career ends. Second, a drunk in a driverless car can still be charged with DUI/OVI in Ohio. Third, if self-driving cars put an end to drunk driving, I will gladly transition to another career.

I do not expect driverless cars to take over the roads during my lifetime. By “driverless”, I mean cars which are fully autonomous. There is a distinction between semi-autonomous cars and fully autonomous cars. Semi-autonomous cars have auto-pilot-like features to control steering, accelerating, and braking. Fully autonomous cars transport passengers from one point to another with no intervention from the passengers. There are currently no fully autonomous cars for sale in the United States.

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Officer Richard Fiorito was a DUI supercop.  He was honored by Mother’s Against Drunk Driving (MADD) for his efforts to combat DUI, and he was named a ‘top cop’ by the Alliance Against Intoxicated Motorists (AAIM).  According to Inthesetimes.com, Fiorito averaged one DUI arrest each day he worked.  He was like a superhero fighting to keep the Chicago streets safe:  it was almost too good to be true.

Actually, it was too good to be true.  It turns out Fiorito falsely arrested dozens of people for DUI.  A typical scenario would look like this:  Fiorito would stop a driver for a minor traffic violation and administer field sobriety tests.  No matter how well the person performed on the tests, the officer would score them as ‘failing’.  He would then arrest them and charge them with DUI.  In court, most people would simply plead guilty at the first court appearance, and others would accept favorable plea bargains rather than go to trial.

Under arrest

There were a couple exceptions:  Steve Lopez and James Dean, Jr.  Steve Lopez was a commercial driver and had just earned his CDL.  To protect his future career, he could not plead guilty.  James Dean, Jr. had good witnesses to contradict Fiorito’s allegations:  other officers.  When Fiorito charged Dean with DUI, Dean had just left the police station where he encountered multiple police officers who did not believe he was under the influence.  Neither Dean nor Lopez was convicted.

Dean and Lopez each filed suit against the city of Chicago for false arrest and malicious prosecution.  They eventually settled with the city for $100,000 each.  The city also agreed to pay legal fees of about $250,000, according to a Chicago Tribune article. *

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Suppose a police officer comes to your home tonight without a warrant and wants you to consent to a search of your residence. If you are like most people, you would say ‘no’: you would assert your Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. Now suppose the government makes it a crime for you to refuse to consent to the search. That’s what Ohio and several other states have done with DUI laws which criminalize refusing a breath/blood/urine test. Those laws are the subject of cases currently before the United States Supreme Court.

Refusal talk to the hand

The cases are Birchfield v. North Dakota, Bernard v. Minnesota, and Beylund v. Levi. In those cases, state laws make it a criminal offense for a motorist arrested for driving under the influence to refuse to consent to a chemical test of the motorist’s blood, breath or urine. Motorists convicted of those laws appealed their convictions to the Supreme Courts of North Dakota and Minnesota, claiming the refusal laws are unconstitutional. In each case, the state supreme court upheld the constitutionality of the law. In each case, the defendant appealed to the United States Supreme Court. The United States Supreme Court held oral arguments for these cases on April 20, 2016.

 

Ohio has a law similar to the laws which are the subject of the Supreme Court cases. Ohio’s law (R.C. 4511.19[A][2]) makes it illegal to refuse a breath/blood/urine test for a person who is arrested for operating a vehicle under the influence (OVI) and has a prior OVI conviction within the last 20 years. The punishment for this offense includes a minimum mandatory jail sentence which is double the minimum mandatory jail sentence for OVI. Although Ohio’s law is slightly different –it has the added element of a prior conviction – it has the same unconstitutional flaw as the laws in North Dakota and Minnesota.

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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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How frustrating would it be if your car won’t start because you recently used mouthwash, put on cologne, or ate a cinnamon roll? That frustration could be real if the federal government ultimately requires alcohol sensors in cars. According to the Columbus Dispatch, federal officials recently announced plans to implement a technological advancement in alcohol-detecting sensors for vehicles. The government anticipates the new alcohol sensors could significantly reduce drunk driving. The sensors may also increase headaches for non-drinking drivers.

Ignition interlock device

 

There are two ways alcohol sensors could be used in vehicles. First, a vehicle could be equipped with passive breath sensors to detect alcohol in the air inside the car. If the concentration of alcohol in the vehicle’s interior air exceeds a predetermined limit, the vehicle would not start.

Passive breath sensors may suffer from the same problem associated with ignition interlock devices. Those devices require the driver to blow into a tube with alcohol-free breath before the vehicle will start. The problem with interlock devices is false positives: the device prevents the vehicle from starting when the driver consumed no alcohol. Causes of false positives include mouthwash, toothpaste, bread, pastries, spicy foods, and high-protein diets.

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In September of 2014, CW was driving his motorcycle in northwestern New York and collided with another motorcycle. A police officer responded to the accident scene and reportedly noticed the odor of alcohol on CW. The officer asked CW to take a breath test, and CW refused. The officer ultimately obtained a blood sample from CW and charged him with DWI (known as OVI in Ohio). The officer then sent the blood sample to be tested. The test revealed a blood alcohol content of 0.00. Last week, five months after CW was charged with DWI, the case was finally dismissed, as reported by the Genesee Sun.

Blood draw

If this case occurred in Ohio, it would have likely gone through the same process. When an officer in Ohio suspects a driver is under the influence, the officer requests a breath test, blood test, or urine test. In cases where a blood test or urine test is used, the results of the test are not immediately known to the officer. Despite not having the test results, officers routinely charge people with OVI immediately after the blood or urine sample is obtained. The blood or urine sample is then sent to a laboratory for analysis, and the analysis typically is not completed until weeks or months after the person is charged.

In cases involving blood/urine tests, there are two types of OVI charges which may be filed. First, the suspect is charged with OVI ‘impaired’. The ‘impaired’ charge accuses the suspect of operating a vehicle with driving ability impaired by alcohol and/or drugs. The ‘impaired’ charge is not dependent on the results of a blood/urine/breath test. Second, if the test results show an alcohol or drug level at or above the prohibited concentration (the ‘legal limit’), the suspect is charged with OVI ‘per se’. The ‘per se’ charge accuses the suspect of operating a vehicle with a prohibited alcohol or drug level. The ‘per se’ charge does not depend on whether suspect’s ability to drive was impaired.

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In the last couple weeks, two school bus drivers were suspected of being under the influence while driving a bus full of students. Both drivers were arrested for DUI, and both drivers now face serious consequences. These incidents raise the question of what happens if a school bus driver is convicted of DUI/OVI in Ohio.

School bus on roof.jpgThe first incident, reported by the Associated Press, involves a school bus driver in Utah. The suspect was driving elementary school students for a field trip. Two people, one motorist and one parent on the bus, called 911 to report the bus was swerving erratically and nearly hit a car on the highway. An officer stopped the bus and conducted a DUI investigation. The bus driver was arrested for DUI, and prescription muscle relaxers were found in the bus driver’s purse. The students were driven to the field trip by another, presumably sober, bus driver.

The second incident, reported by the Boston Globe, involves a school bus driver in Massachusetts. The suspect was driving a high school cross country team from a meet to their high school. Witnesses reported the bus driver smelled of alcohol, ran a red light, took the wrong exit, failed to use turn signals, hit rumble strips, and drove at fluctuating speeds. Police stopped the bus in the school parking lot and administered field sobriety tests to the driver. The bus driver was arrested for DUI and was held without bail. The bus driver reportedly had two prior DUI convictions.

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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.