Is a defendant guilty of aggravated DUI where an accident occurs and any amount of drugs or alcohol are in the driver’s system? Can another intervening cause be used as a defense against the assertion that it was the consumption of alcohol or drugs that was the direct cause of the accident and thus requires a guilty finding? In People v. Way 2015 IL App (5th), the Appellate Court explored the assertion that the statute provides for a strict liability interpretation. The defendant was find guilty, after a bench trial, of aggravated driving under the influence. The facts of the case relevant to the decision were that the defendant was involved in a two-car accident wherein her fourteen years old son, a passenger in her vehicle, was seriously injured as a result of the accident. She was charged with the aggravated driving under the influence with the State presenting evidence alleging that she had consumed alcohol and had smoked marijuana on the day of the accident. After a bench trail, following numerous motions, the Court found the defendant guilty asserting that the Illinois Vehicle Code § 625 ILCS 5/11-501(a)(6) is a strict liability statute where the proximate cause of injuries is not relevant. During the course of motions before the trial, the defendant’s attorney attempted to present evidence of possible alternative causes of the accident based on the defendant’s medical condition at the time of the accident. The court ruled that this evidence of the alternative proximate cause of the accident was disqualified. The defendant appealed the guilty verdict. The Appellate Court determined that the defendant should have been allowed to present her medical evidence, as to an alternative approximate cost of the accident and the injuries, allowing her to put on a proper defense as to the charge of the aggravated driving under the influence. The Appellate Court refused to interpret the statute as if the general assembly had intended for the particular paragraph of the statue to be read as a strict liability standard – where no alternative proximate causes of the related accident were allowed to be introduced at trial to determine guilt for the DUI charge. The Appellate Court found that the language in the statute stating “when the violation was the proximate cost of the injuries” made it fairly clear that it was the intent of legislators to provide for a causal connection to be proven at the time of the trial. On the other hand this same language would allow for the defendant to provide evidence of alternative causes of the accident as a defense – such as a medical problem as in this case.
Can a person be charged with DUI even if his blood alcohol content is below .059 and thus below the legal limit, but on the contention of the police officer that the defendant had shown evidence of intoxication and impairment. In People v. Phillips, the 1st District Appellate Court here in Illinois was tasked with making this determination. The defendant was charged with driving under the influence pursuant to 625 ILCS 5/11-501 (a)(2) which is a charge of driving while under the influence, but this particular paragraph makes no statement as to the blood alcohol concentration. Instead (a)(2) relies on the assertion that the driver was driving in an impaired condition based on a totality of the evidence at the time of the traffic stop. Upon being found guilty by the trial court, the defendant appealed. One of the issues on appeal was the contention that the State failed to meet its burden of proving him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt on the argument that since he did not blow .08 there is a presumption of a lack of impairment. Therefore, the defendant contended that if he did not blow .08 then the statute stated that the court needed to start from a presumption that he was not impaired and thus could not be charged. The appellate court ruled on the contrary stating that although under the Illinois vehicle code someone who is stopped for suspected DUI, and is given a breath test, and blows less than .08, but more than .05 the statute makes no presumption of impairment, but neither does it infer a lack of impairment. The court ruling basically confirms what has been the state of affairs related to this particular form of DUI charge – that when someone’s BAC, based on a breathalyzer test, is below .08 it is the totality of circumstances, the total facts of the case, that will control in the ultimate court’s decision. Therefore, the testimony of any witnesses, the arresting officer, any other officers, and anyone else as to the facts and circumstances of the DUI stop. This may include the appearance of the defendant, whether there was a smell of an alcoholic beverage on the person, whether they were able to go through the field sobriety tests sufficiently well, and any other facts and circumstances allowing the court or the jury to make an informed decision on whether or not the defendant was guilty. In this case it was the smell of an alcoholic beverage on defendant, bloodshot eyes, slurred speech, general disorientation and lack of awareness of his surroundings, and finally difficulty with the field sobriety tests which were sufficient for a finding of guilty.
In this recent U.S. Supreme Court decision it would seem that the bar was lowered somewhat for police officers as to their knowledge of the law utilized as the basis of a traffic stop. In this case the office pulled over two defendants for driving within only one functional brake light. As a result of the stop and a subsequent search of the vehicle, Defendant Heien was arrested for possession with intent to distribute cocaine. Turns out that the relevant North Carolina statute was at best ambiguous whether it was required that two brake lights be functional or one. After making its way through the state courts (with the North Carolina Supreme Court deeming the statute ambiguous and that one light is sufficient – thus making the stop illegal and therefore the search was illegal and therefore the arrest was illegal). Upon appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, in an 8-1 ruling, the majority opinion, stating that “reasonable men make mistakes of law, too, and such mistakes are no less compatible with the concept of reasonable suspicion,” determined that as such mistakes relate to the Fourth Amendment right against search and seizure, the Constitution, “tolerates only reasonable mistakes, and those mistakes – whether or fact or of law – must be objectively reasonable (italics in original). We do not examine the subjective understanding of the particular office involved.” Apparently the reasonableness in this case was the ambiguous language in the statute thus making the officer’s mistake – in believing that both brake lights, and not just one, were necessary for the legal operation of a vehicle on the roads of North Carolina – thus making the stop and the arrest within the bounds of the Fourth Amendment.
This decision begs the question are we now on the slippery slope of holding police officers to a lower standard of knowledge of the law than citizens? And if, as the Supreme Court here states, that a subjective understanding of the police officer does not come into play in determining this “reasonable mistake” theory one needs to ask one more question – Does that mean that a 20 year veteran of a state police department issuing 50 citations every week for those twenty years with an intimate knowledge of the state vehicle code who states that he did not know is not a relevant matter of fact in such a case? It would seem that perhaps, based on this decision, the answer would be no. If that is the case were does this decision lead to insofar as police officers pleading oops I didn’t know that!
Earlier this year the Illinois Supreme Court struck down the eavesdropping statute then in force for the state. Since that time the law has been in limbo. Now Springfield is looking to settle the matter in light of the Supreme Court’s decision. Read more by clicking the link below.
Summer is upon us and we all like to enjoy some time at the outdoor BBQ. Grilling, good food, friends, family and even the occasional alcoholic beverage. Under enhanced sentencing guidelines that came into affect January 1, 2013 any person who knowingly authorizes or allows underage drinking in their home is now subject to being charged with a Class A misdemeanor and a fine of not less than $500.00. If some is injured or killed as a result of such permitted or organized underage drinking then the host is subject to a charge of a Class 4 felony with greater prison time. Underage drinking, and those adult hosts who organize or allow it to occur in their residences, are subject to criminal prosecution, and now with enhanced penalties.