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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Good News for Drunks: Appeals Court Tosses DWI

Posted By on Tue, Aug 30, 2011 at 10:15 AM

click to enlarge Just because you drove, and are drunk, doesn't mean you're a drunk driver, the appellate court says.
  • Just because you drove, and are drunk, doesn't mean you're a drunk driver, the appellate court says.

Here's a little test of deductive reasoning: Say you're a cop, and you're dispatched to an accident scene near a house. Once you arrive, you spot a car with a damaged front end, rut marks in a ditch near the car and a damaged fence. There's a man standing near the car, who slurringly admits that he lost control of the car on a turn. He also admits he's drunk.

So, can you assume the guy is guilty of driving while intoxicated?

Logic might say yes; the Missouri appeals court says no.

In its ruling on State of Missouri v. Billy Jack Hatfield, which originated in Cass County, the Missouri Court of Appeals Western District agreed today that there's enough evidence to establish two critical facts: that Hatfield drove the car, and that he was drunk at the time of his arrest. But there was not, the court ruled, enough evidence for a third, critical point: that Hatfield actually drove the car while he was drunk. And that's enough to reverse his conviction.

Prosecutors brought the case relying on just one witness: the cop. And that simply wasn't enough.

"Hatfield's mere intoxication near his vehicle, without evidence establishing when he last operated it, is insufficient to support his conviction for driving while intoxicated," the court concludes. "Missouri courts have made it clear that the State must present evidence linking in time the defendant's intoxication to the operation of a motor vehicle" -- e.g., when the accident happened compared to when Hatfield was boozing it up.

As the court notes, the officer on the scene failed to ask key questions or do basic detective work. He never interviewed the homeowner where the accident occurred to find out when the car skidded up. He never checked the hood to see if the car was still warm. He couldn't even answer the question of where he'd found the keys to the vehicle.

The prosecutors tried to argue that because Hatfield refused a Breathalyzer, his "consciousness of guilt" is established, but the appellate justices disagreed with that, too. A refusal to submit to a Breathalyzer "cannot establish beyond a reasonable doubt that he was driving while intoxicated."

Logic would certainly tell us that Billy Jack Hatfield was driving the car, and was drunk, at the time he crashed it -- and not just because the dude's name is Billy Jack. But the court's got a higher standard of proof than mere deductive reasoning.

Good news for drunks, indeed! As long as you get a lazy cop, you just might have a get-out-of-jail-free card.

That's certainly true for Billy Jack Hatfield. The court writes that, thanks to a prior DWI, and the fact that his license was suspended at the time of the crash, he had been sentenced to two concurrent four-year terms in prison. He's still stuck with the conviction for driving on a suspended license, but the DWI conviction and sentence are now reversed. We'll drink to that!

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