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.
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.
This situation demonstrates the important distinction between “drinking and driving” and “driving under the influence”. It is not illegal to drive after drinking alcohol. What’s illegal, and unsafe, is driving under the influence of alcohol: when the alcohol impairs driving ability.
A representative of the police department which charged Wardell said the DWI could be dismissed if Wardell can prove the crash was caused by a medical accident. He said, “If evidence is presented in court which shows that alcohol or any other substance were not contributing factors to this crash…the matter will be handled appropriately in the municipal court.”
The officer misunderstands the burden of proof. Wardell should not have to prove her innocence: she is presumed innocent. The government has the obligation to prove her guilt in court. The government does not have evidence to prove her guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
The government didn’t even have probable cause to believe she was driving under the influence. She should have never been charged in the first place. Now, although the government is aware of the blood alcohol level and the seizure-causing tumor, the government is not immediately dismissing the case. Instead, the prosecution is requiring Wardell to go to court while she is undergoing cancer treatment. Nice.
Donna Wardell’s ordeal illustrates the importance of our judicial system and the crucial role played by the presumption of innocence. When we hear a defendant is charged with DUI, we naturally conclude the defendant must be guilty or she would not have been charged. I’m not criticizing people for reaching that conclusion; it’s the natural way our minds work.
Because assuming guilt comes so naturally, a defendant can only receive a fair trial in an OVI case if the jury is required to presume the defendant was not under the influence. An individual can only receive a fair trial when the jury is required to find the defendant not guilty unless the government’s proof is so strong there is no (reasonable) doubt the defendant was under the influence. Hopefully, Donna Wardell will not have to get to the point of having a trial before she is treated fairly and her charges are dismissed.