Those pesky technicalities

One thing that drives me nuts is hearing someone say a person avoided criminal charges or a conviction because of a “technicality.” That concept ignores the fact that, in most cases, the “technicality” is a legal right, usually found in something called the Constitution. So it really drives me nuts when people who should know better buy into this mentality. And it looks like that’s the case locally.

The local daily today had a front page story about how local prosecutors want the Legislature to “simplify drunken driving cases.” The solution? “As long as blood was drawn within two hours of driving and a chemical analysis came back over the legal limit of 0.08, a suspect would be presumed guilty.” That have an odd ring to anyone else’s ears?

The idea stems from the fact mathematical formulas are necessary to extrapolate from the blood alcohol test how drunk a person was when they were actually driving. Defendants can attack that with testimony or evidence that, for example, they took a couple drinks just before getting in the car so they weren’t legally intoxicated when driving but were by the time of the blood test. As a result, prosecutors want to create a presumption of guilt in the hopes it will produce more guilty pleas and fewer trials. To top it off, Joni Cutler, a local legislator and a lawyer who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, indicated she might sponsor the legislation and called the current situation a “technical loophole.”

Granted, I don’t practice criminal law and have never prosecuted or defended a DUI case. But comments like that essentially call the foundational concept of presumption of innocence a “technicality.” And I know the story asserts 27 states have such laws. So what? Didn’t our parents teach us you don’t jump off the cliff jut because everyone else is? While I certainly oppose drunk driving, creating such a presumption seems the functional equivalent of saying that any DUI defendant who testifies they drove before the alcohol got into their blood is committing perjury. It also seems to say South Dakota juries are incapable of judging the credibility of a DUI defendant who so testifies.

Yes, such a law would likely produce more guilty pleas and fewer trials because the odds are now stacked against the defendant. But since when is expedience more important than fundamental principles of justice?

The principle that there is a presumption of innocence in favor of the accused is the undoubted law, axiomatic and elementary, and its enforcement lies at the foundation of the administration of our criminal law.

Coffin v. U.S., 156 U.S. 432 (1895)

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1 comment to Those pesky technicalities

  • The idea of a presumption in the case of DWI or DUI comes essentially from the “contract” a driver agrees to in return for a driver’s license. Driving on highways is not a right, it is a licensed privilege.

    Even so, the systems now available for testing blood alcohol levels are much better than they were years ago. I suspect if you actually check the blood alcohol records of arrests, you will find that most of those arrested have a BAC far above the minimum unless they happen to also be inexperienced teen drivers or elderly drivers who probably should not be on the highways for other reasons.

    Police and Highway Patrol don’t like making arrests of drunk drivers. They puke in patrol cars, etc. A Patrolman or cop who arrested every drunk driver he saw until the average BAC was in the neighborhood of 0.08 percent would spend most of the rest of the year in court.

    Check the latest THE SCIENTIST magazine for an interesting article on alcohol addiction and genetics. There are at least two forms of alcohol addiction related to different genetic predispositions according to the article.

    This suggests that the “moral” arguments requiring jail for drunken driving may be running up against genetic factors. But, this also suggests the difficulty with treatment programs for alcoholics.

    There are worse ideas on presumptions of guilt than those related to drunken driving. The ARGUS a few months ago had a really bad idea in relation to pornography if I remember correctly.