Articles Tagged with DUI/OVI

Ohio has several variations of what is commonly known as vehicular homicide. Generally, vehicular homicide is causing the death of another person while operating a vehicle. In the Ohio Revised Code, there are actually three separate offenses: (1) Aggravated Vehicular Homicide; (2) Vehicular Homicide; and (3) Vehicular Manslaughter. The offenses defined in the Ohio Revised Code are distinguished by the driver’s conduct (actus reus) and the driver’s state of mind (mens rea). The particular offense with which a defendant is convicted makes a substantial difference in the sentence imposed by the court.

Defending DUI Vehicular Homicide Cases book cover

Aggravated Vehicular Homicide can be committed in one of three ways. The first way is causing the death of another person as a result of operating a vehicle under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The second way is causing the death of another person as a result of operating a vehicle recklessly. The third way is causing the death of another person as a result of committing a Reckless Operation offense in a construction zone.

The sentence for Aggravated Vehicular Homicide in Ohio depends on how the offense is committed. If a person is under the influence of alcohol or drugs, the offense is a second degree felony carrying a mandatory prison sentence of up to eight years and a mandatory lifetime driver’s license suspension. If a person is reckless or commits a Reckless Operation offense in a construction zone, the offense is a third degree felony carrying up to five years in prison and a driver’s license suspension from three years to life. If certain factors exist, the offense level and potential sentence are increased.

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‘Best in the Midwest’ has become one of the slogans associated with the annual DUI/OVI seminar presented by the Ohio Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (OACDL). A speaker from another state poked fun at the slogan by asking, “isn’t this the only DUI seminar in the Midwest?” I’m sure there are plenty of other DUI seminars in the Midwest, but this is the only one I know of which is nationally recognized and approved for credit from the National College for DUI Defense (NCDD) and the national DUI Defense Lawyers Association (DUIDLA). The seminar is two-and-a-half days and draws speakers and attendees from around the country. Whether it’s the best or not, the seminar held last week in Columbus was outstanding.

OACDL 2015 DUI seminar brochure page 1The seminar’s theme this year was ‘trying cases post-Ilg’. State v. Ilg is the breath-testing case decided recently by the Ohio Supreme Court. In that case, the Court reiterated a defendant in an OVI case has the right to challenge the accuracy of the specific breath test result in his or her case. Ilg clarified the holding of State v. Vega, which had been subject to misinterpretation for the last 30 years.

Thursday’s presentations focused on scientific issues in OVI cases. Thomas Workman from Massachusetts discussed breath test data, explaining what data is maintained, what data is not being provided to defendants, and what should be done about it. Pharmacologist/statistician Robert Belloto and attorney Andrew Bucher presented a scientific and statistical assessment of the Drug Recognition Evaluation program. There was also a panel of judges discussing State v. Ilg and breath test challenges at trial. It was interesting to hear the different interpretations of Ilg and various predictions about the future of breath-testing litigation in Ohio OVI cases.

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Last week, I completed a short course in gas chromatography. Completing the course reminded me of what Stephen Covey used to say: “To know and not to do is really not to know.” He is so right. It’s one thing to know the law of blood and urine testing. It’s a very different thing to know the science of blood and urine testing. To know the science, you have to do the science, and lawyers typically do not have the opportunity to do the science. Now, however, lawyers get to do the science of gas chromatography in a short course presented by the American Chemical Society.

The course, Forensic Chromatography Theory and Practice, is held in Chicago at the Axion Analytical Laboratories & Training Institute. Axion is the training arm for the American Chemical Society. The president of Axion, Lee Polite, Ph.D., is a leading authority in chromatography and serves as the primary instructor for the course.

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The 40-hour course consists of both lectures and labs. The lectures feature analogies which make chemistry understandable to even the least scientific lawyers. During the lectures, participants learn the scientific principles underlying the operation of the gas chromatograph. They also learn the parts of the instrument and the multitude of variables which must be set correctly for the instrument to produce an accurate result.

The labs are hands-on. Class participants run tests with known and unknown substances and learn to interpret the printed chromatograms. Students manipulate testing conditions to understand how those conditions affect results. Class participants also calibrate the instrument, use the associated software to program a calibration curve, and even take apart the injectors and columns.

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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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