Controversial Ruling: DMV Can Consider Circumstantial Evidence in DUI Cases

In April, a ruling out the California Superior Court in Orange County ruled that the Department of Motor Vehicles has the right to consider circumstantial evidence, such as failing field sobriety tests, or swerving, to prove that a driver’s blood alcohol content (BAC) was above .08% - the legal limit.

With the ruling, DUI defense attorneys are concerned that more drivers could end up with suspended driver’s licenses in DMV administrative hearings where the BAC results were inconclusive or close to the legal limit.

It’s going to be harder for defendants with borderline BAC levels to show that they were not impaired, or at the .08% BAC limit at the time that they were driving. Now, if a person was close to the legal limit, the DMV could look to circumstantial evidence to suspend a driver’s license.

It All Started With an Orange County DUI Case

The Supreme Court case started with an incident that happened in November 2011 in Orange County. A. Jourdan Coffey, 21, was arrested for drunk driving after an officer spotted her driving erratically on the 55 freeway.

According to the officer, her eyes were red and a strong odor of alcohol came from her vehicle. Coffey told the officer that she just turned 21 and she was at a bar but she didn’t drink any alcohol. After failing field sobriety tests, she was arrested for DUI.

About an hour after she was pulled over, her BAC measured at .08%; three minutes later she measured at .09%. A third blood test measured at .0.095%.

Coffey ultimately pleaded guilty to “wet reckless,” but she fought her driver’s license suspension, which was suspended at a DMV administrative hearing.

During the hearing, a toxicologist testified that Coffey’s BAC was below .08% at the time that she was pulled over. The DMV hearing officer rejected the BAC testimony, calling it “insufficient” and suspended Coffey’s driver’s license based on officer accounts.

Subsequently, a trial and appellate court ruled in favor of the DMV.

The high court ruled that the circumstantial was relevant in Coffey’s case; this was the first case to rule that a hearing officer could consider such evidence. Still, the evidence must be reasonable and expert testimony can’t just be excluded.

The high court said that circumstantial evidence has to be looked at on a case-by-case basis.

Many California DUI attorneys are concerned that DMV hearing officers will use circumstantial evidence too freely, and to widely penalize drivers whose BAC readings were just below the .08 legal limit.

Was your BAC close to the legal limit? Defend your rights by contacting an Orange County DUI lawyerat the Law Offices of Virginia L. Landry, Inc. today!

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