DUI/DWI: Trial Issues

by Jamison Koehler on September 24, 2009

If the defendant is not eligible for diversion and if either there is no Motion to Suppress or the Motion to Suppress is denied, then the defendant faces trial. As described in earlier entries, there are two things the prosecution needs to prove at trial: (1) operation or physical control; and (2) impaired driving through intoxication.

(1) Operation/Physical Control

You don’t have to be actually driving the car in order to be found guilty of DUI/DWI. We use the terms “driving while intoxicated” or “driving under the influence” as short-hand, because everyone knows what the terms mean. But, in fact, the statute uses the terms “operation” or “physical control” in describing the elements of the offense. This means that you can be convicted for sitting in a car with keys in the ignition. In at least one instance, a defendant was found guilty after police saw him standing outside the car. (He was in fact urinating at the time.) The question is whether or not the court can infer operation or control from the surrounding facts. Was the car parked in the middle of the street or off the street in a secure parking space? Were there any signs that the car had recently been driven (a warm engine, for example)? Were there other people at the scene who might have been actually driving the car? Who owned the car? Where were the car keys?

(2) Impaired Driving Through Intoxication

If the prosecution can admit a chemical test demonstrating the defendant’s blood alcohol concentration exceeded the legal limit and the prosecution can also make out operation/physical control, then the prosecution has met its burden under the per se offense of driving while intoxicated.

If no chemical test is available (perhaps because the defendant refused to take one) or if the court has suppressed the chemical test after a Motion to Suppress (perhaps because the underlying stop was illegal or because there was some difficulty in correctly administering the test), the court will look to other signs of driving impairment as a result of intoxication from either drugs or alcohol. Circumstantial considerations in this case include: Why was the driver pulled over or detained to begin with? Did the officer smell drugs or alcohol on the driver’s breath or person? Did the officer see empty alcohol containers or drug paraphernalia? Did the person admit to having consumed drugs or alcohol? How did the driver appear? How did he act? Did he fail a field sobriety test?

In both cases in which we are dealing with circumstantial evidence, the finder of fact (that is, the judge or jury) will make a decision based on the “totality of circumstances.” This means that, while any one factor in itself may be insignificant, consideration of all the factors together could lead the finder of fact to a particular conclusion.

This last entry concludes my overview of DUI and DWI in the District of Columbia. For full information on DUI/DWI, see the posts below (or the blog archives and blog labels to the right). I will turn in future posts to other criminal offenses. Drug offenses are next.

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