In a recent criminal law matter, the Appellate Court of Connecticut considered whether a hearing officer properly found that a plaintiff operated her motor vehicle with an elevated blood alcohol content (BAC), despite questions of chemical test reliability.
This case arose from an incident that occurred on the afternoon of August 31, 2007. The plaintiff was arrested for operating a motor vehicle while under the influence (OMVUI) in violation of General Statutes § 14-227a. After failing multiple field sobriety tests, the plaintiff was transported to a police station and submitted two chemical alcohol tests. The results of these tests, taken over thirty minutes apart, both resulted in BAC readings of 0.30. In addition, the calibration tests yielded identical readings of 0.096.
The Department of Motor Vehicle (DMV) subsequently suspended the plaintiff’s license for two years and six months, a heightened penalty because her license was previously suspended twice. The plaintiff requested an administrative hearing, and after making various statutory findings, the hearing officer suspended the license for two and a half years. The plaintiff filed a petition for reconsideration based on “newly discovered evidence” that cast doubt as to the validity of the test results: a toxicologist with the Department of Public Safety (DPS) was concerned about the identical calibration readings and BAC results.
The petition was granted, and a second administrative hearing was held. The plaintiff submitted a letter from the DPS toxicologist, in which he wrote that the identical readings were unusual and “raise[d] my question as to what on Earth is going on here.” As such, he could not characterize the results as reliable. Regardless, the hearing officer made the requisite statutory findings and ordered that the plaintiff’s license be suspended for two years. The plaintiff appealed to the Superior Court, arguing that “the hearing officer cannot make a determination as to [BAC] independent of the test results.” The Court agreed and sustained the appeal, and the DMV Commissioner appealed.
The DMV Commissioner first argued that despite the toxicologist’s testimony regarding the unreliability of the chemical tests, the hearing officer’s finding that the plaintiff operated a motor vehicle with an elevated BAC was proper. He cited the “statutory rebuttable presumption” that the results of a chemical test are “sufficient to indicate the ratio of alcohol in the blood of such person… at the time of operation.” In the alternative, the DMV Commissioner argued that a hearing officer may find a BAC above the legal limit of 0.08, independent of the chemical alcohol tests, solely on the basis of extrinsic evidence presented at the hearing.
Under General Statutes § 14-227b(i)(3), the DMV will suspend an operator’s license for a period of two and a half years if he or she has two or more previous suspensions. However, in this case, the hearing officer deviated from the statute and instead imposed a two-year suspension. To the Appellate Court, this indicated that the officer concurred with the toxicologist that the test results were not reliable. As such, the DMV Commissioner’s first argument failed.
The Appellate Court acknowledged that hearing officers may rely on the rebuttable presumption despite conflicting expert testimony. To determine whether or not a driver had an elevated BAC under the third criterion of General Statutes § 14-227b(g), a hearing officer may consider the record as a whole, not just the test results. However, the Appellate Court found, given their conclusion that the hearing officer “did not find the test results to be accurate,” that additional evidence submitted at the hearing did not provide a foundation of reliability for the test results. Therefore, the Appellate Court found that the Superior Court properly upheld the appeal, and as such the judgment was affirmed.
When faced with a charge of operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated (a.k.a. driving under the influence) or license suspension, an individual is best served by consulting with an experienced criminal law practitioner. Should you have any questions regarding criminal defense, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya in the firm’s Westport office in Fairfield County at 203-221-3100 or at JMaya@Mayalaw.com.
Written by Lindsay E. Raber, Esq.