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Can a court use circumstantial evidence, along with blood and breath tests, to conclude that a driver was above the legal limit for alcohol intoxication?
That's the question the California Supreme Court answered earlier this month, and it answered in the affirmative after Ashley Coffey challenged her driver's license suspension following a DUI arrest.
Giving It the Old College Try
Based on police officers' observations and on her "poor performance" on several field sobriety tests, Coffey submitted to a breath test, which showed 0.08 on the first reading and 0.096 on a reading three minutes later. Almost an hour and a half after she was pulled over, Coffey had a blood test at the Orange County jail. One sample registered 0.095 and another 0.096.
At an administrative hearing and a trial to review her driver's license suspension, Coffey had an expert testify that "her BAC was rising at the time of the chemical tests, suggesting her BAC was below the 0.08 percent threshold at the time plaintiff was driving." Both the trial court and the DMV hearing discounted that testimony.
You Win Some, You Lose Some
In California, as in most (if not all) other states, the 0.08 BAC creates a rebuttable presumption that the driver was legally impaired -- and here's the important part -- " within three hours after the driving." As the Court explains, the presumption is successfully rebutted when "evidence sufficient to negate the presumed fact is presented."
Fair enough, but the DMV claimed that the testimony of Coffey's expert was insufficient to rebut the presumption; it claimed the evidence must be "substantial," which means " reasonable in nature, credible, and of solid value." This is where the DMV went wrong, said the Court: The Evidence Code says nothing about the quality of the evidence. It says only that, once the opponent introduces evidence of a fact negating the presumption, the trier of fact has to " weigh the inferences arising from the facts that gave rise to the presumption against the contrary evidence and resolve the conflict."
That means the 0.08 presumption goes away, and the DMV must now rely on something other than just blood and breath tests to prove that Coffey's BAC was above the legal limit at the time she was driving.
This it had in the form of the officers' observations and her performance on the field sobriety tests. Coffey, however, wanted the Court to discount the officers' observations of her, and the field tests, as not relevant and therefore inadmissible. Coffey tried to convince the Court that plenty of studies showed that field sobriety tests are unreliable; the Court retorted with its own list of studies showing that they are reliable.
Ultimately, the Court said, circumstantial evidence is admissible in the first instance because it's relevant to a fact at issue. Whether that evidence is believable is a credibility question reserved for the fact-finder. Plus, prior case law has held that circumstantial evidence of intoxication, in conjunction with BAC tests, can lead to the conclusion that the driver was drunk. So, while Coffey got her expert testimony, it was of no help, because the DMV hearing and the trial court could properly conclude she was intoxicated once the officers' observations were taken into account.
Justice Goodwin Liu concurred separately to elaborate (as he often does) that the BAC is not a hard and fast rule of intoxication. "The fact that 0.08 percent BAC is a threshold associated with an unsafe degree of impairment does not imply that no impairment occurs below that threshold," he said.
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