9/1/2009Alaska Supreme Court Allows Science in DUI Cases
Alaska Supreme Court overturns law designed to stop presentation of medical evidence regarding alcohol absorption in DUI cases.
The Supreme Court of Alaska on Friday upheld the right of defendants to present scientific evidence at trial in cases involving driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI). In 2004, the state legislature sought to muzzle defense attorneys who cited medical evidence on alcohol absorption rates in a way that would have undermined conviction rates.
Douglas Valentine had challenged his own June 18, 2005 DUI arrest. Fairbanks Police Sergeant Dan Welborn initially pulled Valentine over that night for speeding but upon noticing his bloodshot eyes and a "moderate" odor of alcohol, Valentine was given a field sobriety test and brought in to the station for a breathalyzer reading. At 9:20pm, he blew a 0.099 on the machine. Twenty-five minutes later, the reading increased by 0.020 to 0.119.
Valentine argued that he had two beers before getting behind the wheel and that neither the field sobriety test nor his driving that night showed any evidence of impairment. Alaska Statute 28.35.030(s) prohibited Valentine from making the medical argument that at the time he was behind the wheel, the alcohol had not been absorbed into his bloodstream and his blood alcohol content (BAC) was under the legal limit of 0.08. The high court summarized the scientific evidence.
"Typically within an hour after a person has stopped drinking, the person's body has absorbed much of the alcohol consumed and is eliminating alcohol from the bloodstream faster than it is absorbing it -- that is, the point of 'peak' blood alcohol level has passed," Chief Justice Dana Fabe wrote for the court. "But in some people this 'peak' point may not be reached for up to four hours after drinking because the rate at which the body absorbs alcohol depends on a variety of factors, including consumption of food, having an upset stomach, and the type of alcohol consumed. Therefore, it is possible that a person's blood alcohol at the time of driving was lower than at the time the person took a post-arrest chemical test."
The legislature specifically outlawed the delayed absorption defense in response to a 2002 court of appeals opinion, Conrad v. Alaska, where the argument had been successful. The high court on Friday found that this law undermined the constitutional right of a driver accused of DUI to defend himself.
"Under the United States and Alaska Constitutions, a defendant has the right to present relevant exculpatory evidence in a criminal trial," Fabe wrote. "A defendant's due process rights are denied when a legislative enactment substantially limits the right to present a defense."
The Alaska Supreme Court, however, did approve another 2004 legislative change that has the effect of allowing automatic DUI convictions in nearly all cases. A separate provision of law allows anyone accused of having a blood alcohol level of 0.08 up to four hours after driving to be automatically convicted of DUI, regardless of whether he was sober while behind the wheel. This redefinition of the crime creates what California DUI Attorney Lawrence Taylor calls the "DUI exception to the Constitution." In such cases, using science to prove sobriety can be excluded on grounds of irrelevance.
Because the lower court in Valentine's case did not explicitly cite this exception, the supreme court overturned the conviction and ordered Valentine to stand for retrial.
A copy of the supreme court ruling is available in a 160k PDF file a the source link below.