Articles Posted in MVA

Recent articles in the New York Times have raised questions about the reliability of breath testing devices used across the country in DUI cases.  These Machines Can Put You in Jail.  Don’t Trust Them  and 5 Reasons to Question Alcohol Breath Tests.  The authors also interviewed a defense lawyer and defense expert in NPR, and heard from other persons connected with the breath testing process including an officer and a defendant. Blown Away: Why Police Rely On Faulty Breathalyzers.

Breath testing is used to estimate a level of alcohol in the person’s blood.  Breath testing relies on an assumption that a persons breath can contain alcohol in roughly a 1/2100 ratio of the alcohol in the breath to the alcohol in the blood.  There are numerous other assumptions as well, highlighted in an article by Leonard R. Stamm, and published in the magazine of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the Champion, titled The Top 20 Myths of Breath, Blood and Urine Testing.

The New York Times articles highlight some of the problems that have plagued the government’s efforts to prosecute drunk driving cases.  This includes problems with calibration, maintenance of the machines (officers insist on calling them “instruments”), the controls that are used, the adequacy of the procedures used to test individuals, failures in record keeping, secrecy in computer codes, human errors and others.

As the Daily Record reported yesterday (Jan. 23, 2019), a bill will be introduced in the Maryland legislature to expand Noah’s Law (named after Noah Leotta – a police officer killed by a drunk driver) to require an ignition interlock be installed as a condition of a probation before judgment.  Currently, first offenders who blow a .15 or higher, or refuse to submit to a breath or blood test are required to obtain an ignition interlock for one year or have their licenses suspended for 180 or 270 days respectively (for a first test failure or refusal).  If the driver submits to a test with a result of .08 or more but less than .15, the 180 day interlock is optional.  That person may elect instead to drive with a permit that allows driving for work, school, medical, or alcohol education restricted driving privileges.  Currently, some first offenders escape the interlock where they win the MVA hearing for a test failure or refusal, or if they have an out of state driver’s license.

There are some significant problems with the proposal, such as dealing with individuals who share cars with family members, who don’t own a car, who have to drive clients to earn a living or who live out of state.  Currently, out of state drivers are not allowed to participate in Maryland’s ignition interlock program.  This can be a devastating problem for drivers who live out of state and work in Maryland.  Additionally, the law would deprive judges of the discretion to deny interlock in an appropriate case.  This was the decision the legislature made a few years ago when Noah’s Law was enacted.  Also commercial drivers are not allowed to drive commercial vehicles while their licenses are restricted in this way.

As the Daily Record reported:

On Wednesday, September 12, 2018, Leonard Stamm appeared in the Court of Appeals to argue the case of Owusu v. MVA.  Owusu was arrested for drunk driving and taken to the police station.  At the police station he was read the DR-15 Advice of Rights Form.  This is a form police officers are required to read to DUI suspects advising them of the penalties for refusing or failing a breath test for alcohol.  In Owusu’s case he was read the form and told that if he failed the test he would lose his driver’s license for 180 days, but that if he refused he would lose his license for 270 days.  Additionally he was told that since he had a commercial driver’s license or CDL, that if he refused the test his CDL would be disqualified for one year.  The one year disqualification meant that he not be able to perform his job as a bus driver for one year.

Immediately after reading the form, that contained a lot of other information as well, to Owusu, the officer tried to be helpful.  He told Owusu that since he was a bus driver he would be out of work for 180 days if he failed the test and 270 days if he refused.  Although probably well meaning, the officer’s statement was false. Critically, the officer did not tell Owusu he would be out of work for one year if he refused as a result of the one year disqualification of his CDL.  The one year disqualification was huge because it means Owusu will have to retake the CDL knowledge and skill tests with it, but not with a 270 day suspension.  Owusu testified at the hearing that after the officer advised him, he was not aware he would lose his CDL, and that, if he had he would have submitted to the test.

As Stamm had argued in the MVA hearing and again in the Montgomery County Circuit Court without success that the giving of the false advice failed to comply with the relevant law requiring the arresting officer to “fully advise” the driver of the administrative penalties and also violated Owusu’s due process rights.  Stamm also unsuccessfully argued in the hearing and appellate court that the DR-15’s form’s advice of a 270 day suspension on a refusal, and eligibility for a restricted license, without telling drivers that the required period of interlock restriction is longer, one year, violated his statutory and due process rights.

Many people will remember the nurse in Utah who refused to draw blood in a DUI case under directions from a police officer and was arrested.  She subsequently settled a lawsuit for $500,000 and the officer was fired.  As a result the Utah legislature tried to fix the problem.

In Anne Arundel County doctors and nurses have also refused to follow illegal directions from police officers.  In response, bills were introduced in the Maryland Senate and Maryland House of Delegates to try to fix the problem. The bill would require qualified medical persons to withdraw blood where the driver did not consent to a test after an officer developed reasonable grounds (defined as reasonable articulable suspicion) to believe a person was driving while impaired by alcohol or drugs and there was an accident resulting in a fatality or life threatening injury.

The problem is that the Supreme Court has held in two cases, Missouri v. McNeely, 133 S. Ct. 1552, 185 L. Ed. 2d 696 (2013) and Birchfield v. North Dakota, 136 S. Ct. 2160 (2016), that before police may direct a qualified medical person to withdraw blood the officer must have probable cause and a warrant, unless an exception to the warrant requirement such as exigent circumstances or consent exists.  However, not every case involving a fatal or life threatening injury will involve exigent circumstances.

Under current Maryland law, if a driver is arrested for a DUI, he or she will be asked to submit to a breath test for alcohol.  If the result is 0.08 or more but less than 0.15, the person faces a driving license or privilege suspension of 180 days.  If at a hearing challenging the suspension, the suspension is sustained, the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) holding the hearing has discretion to allow the driver to drive to and from or during the course of employment, alcohol education, education, and for medical purposes for the driver or family members.  If the driver blows .15 or more, the suspension is also 180 days for a first offense and 270 days for a subsequent offense, but the only option for the ALJ is to allow the driver to drive  only with an ignition interlock in the car for one year.  Similarly, if the driver refuses to take a test, the penalty on a first offense is 270 days or two years for a subsequent offense, and the ALJ can only allow the driver to drive with an ignition interlock in the car for one year.

Although these suspensions may be challenged at an administrative hearing, if the challenge fails, the ALJ’s options are limited as noted above.  However, the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration does not allow out of state drivers to participate in the Ignition Interlock System Program.  This critically affects drivers who live outside of Maryland but work here.  The only option is to challenge the suspension, and appeal any defeats.  But if that effort fails, the driver is SOL.

Hopefully the legislature will remedy this situation soon.  Stay tuned.

The Supreme Court decided two Fourth Amendment cases this week that diminish our freedom from police searches.  The Fourth Amendment says:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Starting with the Supreme Court’s decision in Terry v. Ohio, in 1968, police have been allowed to stop a person without probable cause if they have an articulable reasonable suspicion that the person has, is, or is about to break the law.  Under the exclusionary rule, the government is not allowed to use in court evidence obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment.  The exclusionary rule exists to deter officers from breaking the law.

If you have been following the news lately you have heard that Maryland has joined the states that require interlocks in all DUI cases, even for first offenders blowing under 0.15.  For example, see Md. lawmaker: Slain officer Noah Leotta ‘is still on the job’ in the Washington Post.  However a close examination of the record reveals over 50 changes to the original version of Noah’s law contained in the Conference Committee Report.

A key provision in contention would have required a first offender with a test result of 0.08 or higher but less than 0.15 to get an ignition interlock for 90 days.   The House had rejected that provision.  However, that provision was contained in the third reading of the Senate Bill 945.  (The House and Senate had both already stricken a provision requiring defendants charged with DUI or DWI but only convicted of reckless or negligent driving to get an ignition interlock).  In the end, the House and Senate Conference Committee compromised.  They increased the length of the suspension to 6 months, but reinstated a provision that allows alleged offenders to request a hearing to get a permit that allows driving for employment, alcohol education, education or medical purposes for the licensee or family members, without obtaining an ignition interlock in the car.  So while a 6 month interlock is an option, it is not a requirement in the new law.  The new law, which takes effect on October 1, 2016 (assuming the Governor signs it), also requires ignition interlock for defendants convicted of drunk driving (for 6 months, one year, or 18 months).  But in Maryland most of them are second offenders, since most first offenders found guilty end up with probation before judgment (PBJ) – not a conviction.

If you are facing criminal or traffic charges in Maryland state or federal court, call Leonard R. Stamm of Goldstein & Stamm, P.A. at 301-345-0122 for a free consultation.

Every breath test in Maryland is subject to suppression.  Every administrative suspension based on a failed breath test should be thrown out.  The reason is – in Maryland there is a potential 60 day enhanced jail penalty for every driver arrested for DUI who refuses to take a breath test.  The question is – can the State put someone in jail for refusing to consent to a search of their body?  Can the State make it a crime, or a sentencing enhancement to refuse to consent to a warrantless search?  And if they cannot, can they comply with due process when they use the threat of jail to induce the person to consent to a breath test?  The answer to these three questions should be NO.

There is a conflict among courts on the issue of whether a State can criminalize refusal to submit to an alcohol test.  If it cannot, then any consent obtained by advising a suspect that refusal is a crime carrying a potential penalty of incarceration is coerced and involuntary as a matter of law.  In Maryland, the DR-15 advice used to obtain consent gives this questionable advice.

This is an important issue currently because on December 11, 2015, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in three cases that raised this issue: Birchfield v. North Dakota, 136 S.Ct. 614 (2015); Bernard v. Minnesota, 136 S.Ct. 615 (2015); and Beylund v. Levi, 136 S.Ct. 614 (2015).  These cases will be argued in the Supreme Court on April 20, 2016.

The Maryland House of Delegates took the courageous step of passing Noah’s Law, HB 1342, with substantial amendments.  The amendments make the bill a much more rational and humane way of encouraging sober driving while not unnecessarily punishing social drinkers or putting them out of work.

The law deals with test failures and refusals before court and the effect of convictions after court.

Under current law a person who submits to a test and has a reading of 0.08 or more and less than 0.15 faces a 45-day suspension for a first offense and 90-day suspension for a second or subsequent offense.  On a first offense or a second or subsequent offense more than five years after the first the suspensions may be modified by an administrative law judge to allow restricted driving for purposes of work, school, alcohol education or treatment, or medical treatment for the licensee or family members.  Noah’s Law changes this to increase the suspension periods from 45 to 90 days and 90 to 180 days.  The proposed law also eliminates the work etc. permit provision and requires these offenders to get an ignition interlock for the period of suspension.  The House amendments restore the work etc. permit but leave the increased length of suspensions in place.

The anti-DUI lobby in Maryland has put together a massive effort to pass HB 1342/SB 942 called the Drunk Driving Reduction Act of 2016 – Noah’s Law, in memory of Montgomery County police officer Noah Leotta, who was killed by a suspected drunk driver last December.  The bill proposes a number of changes to Maryland law.

  • MVA penalties for a test result of 0.08 or more but less than 0.15 would be increased from a suspension of 45 days on a first offense and 90 days on a second or subsequent offense would be increased to 90 and 180 days respectively. Critically, instead of first offenders being able to drive with a permit restricted for work, education, alcohol education, or medical purposes, all of these drivers would be required to install an ignition interlock for this period of time.
  • MVA penalties for a test result of 0.15 or more would be increased from a suspension of 90 days on a first offense and 180 days on a second or subsequent offense would be increased to 180 and 270 days respectively.  Instead of ignition interlock being optional for these offenders, it would now be mandatory.