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The opinions of the United States Supreme Court are the law of the land and generally must be followed by all states. Often, the Supreme Court decides which cases to choose based on the issues that are presented in the case. Typically, the Court will select cases that raise legal questions that are unclear or not entirely settled due to incremental advancements in the law made by lower courts.

Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an opinion in the case, Mitchell v. Wisconsin, which discusses blood-draws from unconscious motorists who are suspected of being under the influence. The case is the third U.S. Supreme Court case in recent years to touch on this topic. However, because no five Justices could agree on a single basis for the opinion, technically, the decision is not binding on the lower courts and only impacts the defendant in this case. However, in reality, courts across the country will look to the plurality opinion for guidance.

The facts as the Court described them are as follows: police officers arrested the defendant under suspicion of driving under the influence. Officers took the defendant to the police station to administer a breath test; however, the defendant was too lethargic to complete the test. Because Wisconsin law provides that an unconscious motorist is not capable of withdrawing implied consent, an officer drove the defendant to a hospital for a blood draw. The results of the test indicated the defendant’s blood-alcohol content was over the legal limit, and he was arrested and charged with DUI.

In the vast majority of Arizona DUI cases, the applicable law that governs the case is that of the jurisdiction where the offense occurred. However, in very rare circumstances, another state’s laws may apply. This puts state courts in the difficult position of applying a foreign jurisdiction’s law. In a recent Arizona DUI case, the court explained why the defendant’s motion was properly denied under Nevada law by the trial court.

According to the court’s opinion, the defendant’s vehicle swerved into oncoming traffic, colliding with another vehicle. The defendant suffered serious injuries in the accident. While police were investigating the accident, they noticed that the defendant smelled of alcohol. A helicopter took the defendant to a hospital in Nevada.

While in the hospital, Arizona law enforcement called the Nevada hospital and requested they draw the defendant’s blood. The requesting officer did not discuss whether a warrant was necessary, but later testified that he did not believe it was his responsibility to obtain a warrant. The hospital complied with the request without obtaining a warrant. At the time, the defendant was unconscious. The sample was given to a Nevada law enforcement officer. The test results revealed that the defendant had a blood-alcohol content of .21, well over the legal limit of .08.

Law enforcement officers frequently focus their DUI enforcement efforts on long weekends and holidays under the assumption that people are more likely to drink and drive when they are out celebrating with friends and family. According to a recent news report, there were a total of 503 Arizona DUI arrests over Memorial Day weekend. Of those, 70 people were arrested for aggravated DUI and the remaining 433 were misdemeanor DUI arrests.

The article lists a few other interesting facts:

  • 109 motorists were arrested for extreme DUI, with a blood-alcohol content (BAC) in excess of .15

In April 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in a case that may call into question the constitutionality of a significant part of Arizona’s implied consent statute. The specific question posed by the case is whether a law that allows a blood test from an unconscious driver provides an exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement.

Arizona’s implied consent statute provides that “a person who operates a motor vehicle in this state gives consent … to a test or tests of the person’s blood, breath, urine or other bodily substance.” The statute also states that “a person who is dead, unconscious or otherwise in a condition rendering the person incapable of refusal is deemed not to have withdrawn the consent … and the test or tests may be administered.”

The area of implied consent has always been controversial, but especially since 2013, when the Supreme Court issued an opinion in the case Missouri v. McNeely. In that case, the court held that the dissipation of alcohol in a DUI suspect’s blood is not an “exigent circumstance” that allows for a warrantless blood draw. Since then, the Court decided another landmark case, Birchfield v. North Dakota, in which the court held that warrantless breath tests are constitutionally permissible, but that blood draws require a warrant.

Expert testimony is often necessary in Arizona DUI cases. Therefore, understanding the use and limits of expert testimony is essential. In a recent Arizona DUI case, an appellate court considered whether the trial court exceeded its authority in limiting expert testimony.

According to the court’s decision, the defendant was driving in Tucson, when his car crossed into the median, which was lined with palm trees. The defendant’s car crashed into a tree, and three passengers died, one of whom was pregnant. The defendant was also taken to the hospital, and a blood test showed that he had a blood-alcohol content (BAC) of .180. The defendant was charged with multiple counts of DUI, manslaughter, and negligent homicide.

At trial, the defendant argued that the roadway was defective, and that the roadway’s design caused the crash. The jury found him guilty, and he was sentenced to a total of 16.5 years in prison. On appeal, the defendant argued that he did not receive a fair trial, in part because the court excluded testimony from his expert witnesses. He argued that most of his expert’s testimony was improperly precluded.

In a recent case, an Arizona court of appeals held that an Arizona DUI sentence should stand because the court’s correction of the unlawful sentence was made too late. According to the court’s opinion, in 2016, the defendant was convicted of aggravated driving under the influence and aggravated driving with a Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) of .08 or higher. The case was reset for sentencing, but before the defendant was sentenced, he moved to designate a prior conviction as a misdemeanor, which the state granted. The state then moved for reconsideration, and the court denied reconsideration. On September 15, 2017, the court sentenced the defendant. It imposed a sentence of one year in prison.

The state then moved to correct the defendant’s sentence under Rule 24.3 of the Arizona Rules of Criminal Procedure (“Rule 24.3). It argued that the defendant’s prior conviction was a felony at the time he committed the DUI, and therefore, the court should have sentenced him more harshly. In On December 1, 2017, the court granted the state’s motion, finding that the original sentence was inappropriate under an applicable statute, and re-sentenced the defendant to a presumptive term of imprisonment of 2.5 years. On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court could not re-sentence him under Rule 24.3.

Under the current version of Arizona Rules of Criminal Procedure 24.3, a court can correct an unlawful sentence or a sentence imposed in an unlawful manner within 60 days of the entry of judgment of the sentence, or within 15 days of the appellate clerk distributing a notice under Rule 31.9(e) that a record on appeal has been filed. At the time of the defendant’s sentence, the rule stated simply that a court could “correct any unlawful sentence or one imposed in an unlawful manner within 60 days of the entry of judgment and sentence but before the defendant’s appeal, if any, is perfected.”

Recently, a state appellate court issued an opinion in an Arizona DUI case discussing the elements of an aggravated DUI under Arizona Revised Statutes (A.R.S.) section 28-1383(A)(3). Ultimately, the court determined that the prosecution established evidence of each element, and affirmed the jury’s guilty verdict.

According to the court’s opinion, the defendant was driving a 14-year-old girl home from a party when he was involved in a car accident. Evidently, the defendant did not know the girl very well, and was unaware of her age. When police arrived on the scene, they found a bottle of pills inside the vehicle, and the defendant admitted that he had smoked marijuana earlier that day.

The defendant was arrested and charged under A.R.S. section 28-1383(A)(3), which makes it an aggravated DUI to operate a vehicle under the influence of drugs or alcohol while carrying a passenger less than 15 years of age. The defendant requested the trial court instruct the jury that he could not be found guilty unless the prosecution proved the defendant knew the girl was under 15 years of age. The court rejected the defendant’s request and the jury convicted the defendant of aggravated DUI. The defendant appealed.

The issue of implied consent has been a hot topic in courts across the United States since the Supreme Court decided Birchfield v. North Dakota, which allowed warrantless breath tests to be conducted (but disallowed warrantless blood tests). In its most recent Arizona DUI opinion, the Arizona Supreme Court discussed whether Arizona’s implied-consent statute requires that an arrestee’s consent to test be voluntary. The court held that there is no voluntariness requirement.

The Facts of the Case

According to the court’s opinion, the defendant was stopped for suspicion of driving under the influence. The police officer who stopped the defendant read her the standard warnings, stating:

Arizona law states that a person who operates a motor vehicle at any time in this state gives consent to a test or tests of blood, breath, urine … If you refuse, or do not expressly agree to submit to, or do not successfully complete the tests, your Arizona driving privilege will be suspended. … Will you submit to the tests?

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A few posts ago, we discussed Arizona’s implied consent statute, which provides that anyone who operates a vehicle on a public road implicitly consents to chemical testing if police suspect they are under the influence. In the post, we also discussed that while motorists have no legal basis for refusing a test, they cannot be physically forced to undergo chemical testing.

Recently, the Arizona Supreme Court issued an opinion in an Arizona DUI case discussing whether a defendant’s consent to allow chemical testing of his blood was coerced, and thus invalid under the Fourth Amendment. Ultimately, the court concluded that the officer did not coerce the defendant’s consent by explaining to the defendant that his license would be suspended for 12 months if he refused testing.

The Facts of the Case

According to the court’s opinion, the plaintiff was pulled over for suspicion of driving under the influence. After the defendant was arrested, the arresting officer requested the defendant consent to a blood draw. During that request, the officer explained that “Arizona law states that a person who operates a motor vehicle … gives consent to a test … for the purpose of determining alcohol concentration or drug content.” The officer also explained that “If you refuse, do not expressly agree to submit to, or do not successfully complete the tests, your Arizona driving privilege will be suspended.”

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The most common type of chemical test performed by police in Arizona DUI cases is breath testing. Breath testing measures the amount of alcohol in a person’s breath and converts the figure to blood-alcohol content. Police prefer breath testing in many cases because it is faster and less expensive than blood or urine testing.

Practically speaking, absent physical coercion, breath testing cannot be performed without a driver’s consent. However, under Arizona’s implied consent statute, any motorist who “operates a motor vehicle in this state gives consent … to tests of the person’s blood, breath, urine or other bodily substance for the purpose of determining alcohol concentration or drug content” if they are arrested for suspicion of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Thus, while a motorist can physically refuse to provide a sample, they do not have the legal right to do so. Of course, to rely on the implied consent statute, police must provide a defendant with their rights and the consequences of refusal.

What Happens When Police Don’t Follow the Law?

Generally speaking, when police obtain evidence obtained through improper, illegal, or unconstitutional means, that evidence must be suppressed. This concept is referred to as the exclusionary rule, and is a judicially-created doctrine to deter improper police conduct. Indeed, the United States Supreme Court has held that when a defendant’s blood was taken without a warrant or his consent, the blood-test results were inadmissible. The Court based its holding on the inherent privacy interest a person has in their blood and the intrusive means of obtaining a blood sample. However, in a subsequent case, the Court distinguished between taking a defendant’s blood and using a breath sample. This left an open question regarding the admissibility of breath-test evidence that was obtained in violation of the implied consent statute.

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