The New World of California DUI Law

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So the stakes are high. Never underestimate the damage that a DUI conviction can do.

The third misconception commonly held about DUI is that the usual criminal safeguards apply. Quite simply, they do not.

Consider for a moment a situation in a homicide case where the prosecution introduces a revolver used in the killing together with opinion testimony that the fingerprints on it are probably the defendant's. Thereafter, the jury might be instructed that, because of this opinion evidence, the defendant is presumed to be guilty unless he introduces sufficient evidence to overcome this presumption. Again, consider an extortion case where evidence of a voice analysis machine indicates that it was probably the defendant who made the threatening phone call. The judge might tell the jurors that they must convict the defendant unless he successfully proves his innocence. Finally, consider a DUI case where the prosecutor offers the results of an Intoxilyzer test into evidence. The jury may be instructed that the defendant is legally presumed to have been under the influence of alcohol.

Are these instructions a violation of the constitutional presumption of innocence? Are they a denial of the Fifth Amendment right against requiring the defendant to testify at trial? Are they reversible error? Of course, in a murder or an extortion trial, these instructions violate the Constitution and are reversible error. But under present laws, such instructions in a DUI case are totally proper and, in fact, required.

Quite simply, a criminal defendant is presumed to be innocent until proven to be guilty beyond a reasonable doubt - except in DUI cases. There, because of blood-alcohol evidence no different in nature - and, in fact, often less reliable - than any other scientific evidence, the presumption is reversed.

"Intent" is another aspect of drunk driving that should be clearly understood: None is required. Neither the intent to become intoxicated nor the intent to operate a motor vehicle is necessary to the corpus of the crime. Drunk driving is, quite simply, an absolute liability offense.

Perhaps even more interesting, the DUI offense itself is vague and literally impossible to accurately determine. What is meant by "under the influence"? By statute, it is usually described along the lines of having reached that state of intoxication at which the reflexes and judgment have been impaired so much that the driver cannot safely operate a vehicle in the manner of a normally prudent and sober person. But how does one determine this corpus - that is, how is this physical-mental state determined? It is impossible, at least with the present state of medical knowledge, actually to go inside a person's brain, nerves, and muscles and directly observe their condition. Proof can only come through circumstantial evidence, indirect measurements, and opinion testimony.