Arizona Finds Witness Statements Were Improperly Admitted, but Affirms Defendant’s DUI Conviction

Last month, a state appellate court issued a written opinion in an Arizona drunk driving case, discussing the defendant’s challenges to certain statements admitted at trial. Ultimately, the court held that, while the statements should not have been admitted, the defendant failed to show that admission of the statements constituted a “fundamental error.”

The Facts of the Case

According to the court’s opinion, witnesses watched as a car drove into their driveway and crashed into their vehicle. There were three people in the car, the defendant, his girlfriend, and another male. One of the witnesses identified the defendant as the driver. However, in the witness’ statement to the police, the description of the driver matched both the defendant as well as the other male in the car.

When police arrived, the witness again identified the defendant as the driver, as did several of the witness’ housemates. The defendant was arrested and charged with DUI. He then told police that he had been drinking, he was driving at some point, but he did not get into an accident. His defense at trial was that he was not the driver.

At trial, the witness testified, but none of his housemates took the stand. However, in closing, the prosecutor referenced the housemates’ positive identification of the defendant, explaining that “all of the witnesses” identified the defendant as the driver. The defendant did not object to this statement, but later filed an appeal after the jury convicted him.

The Appellate Court’s Decision

On appeal, the court first noted that because the defendant did not object to the introduction of the housemates’ identification, the court would apply a “fundamental error” analysis. This meant that the defendant must not only show that admission of the statements was in error, but also that the error either 1.) went to the foundation of his case, 2.) deprived him of an essential right, or 3.) was so egregious he could not possibly have received a fair trial.

The court held that the prosecutor’s statement referring to the housemates’ identification of the defendant as the driver was in error. However, the court went on to hold that the defendant could not meet his burden to prove he was prejudiced as a result of the error. The case seemed to be a close call, in that the court disagreed that evidence of guilt was overwhelming. However, the court found that there was “sufficient” evidence of guilt, after considering the witness’ statement and the defendant’s partial admission. Thus, although the housemates’ statements should not have been admitted, the court affirmed the jury’s guilty verdict.

Have You Been Arrested for an Arizona Drunk Driving Offense?

If you have recently been charged with an Arizona DUI offense, contact Attorney James E. Novak for immediate assistance. Attorney Novak is an experienced Tempe criminal defense attorney with a passion for defending his clients’ rights. When you bring Attorney Novak onto your defense team, you can rest assured that you are in capable hands. To learn more, and to schedule a free consultation, call 480-413-1499 today.

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