Posts tagged with "operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated"

An Illustration: Eligibility for the Pretrial Alcohol Education Program

Connecticut provides individuals charged with operating a motor vehicle while under the influence (OMVUI), and a very limited number of other crimes, the opportunity to take part in a pretrial alcohol education program. The requirements of this program are set forth in Connecticut General Statutes (CGS) § 54-56g. Criminal defendants seek participation in hopes that should they successfully complete the program, they can have their charges dismissed. However, entry is not guaranteed: in the case where a defendant is charged with OMVUI, eligibility requires that “such person has not been convicted in any other state at any time of an offense the essential elements of which are substantially the same as” either the behavioral or per se violations of our OMVUI statute, CGS § 14-227a.

To illustrate, in a recent criminal law matter, a defendant was charged in Connecticut with OMVUI and sought participation in the pretrial alcohol education program. The essential elements of OMVUI under CGS § 14-227a(a)(1) are “(1) operation of a (2) motor vehicle (3) while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.” However, the defendant was previously convicted of violating New York Vehicle & Traffic Law § 1192.03, which prohibits “(1) operation of a (2) motor vehicle (3) while in an intoxicated condition.” As one can readily see, the required elements of these two crimes are substantially the same. Therefore, the defendant was denied eligibility because he was previously convicted of a New York offense that was substantially similar to the crime of OMVUI in Connecticut.

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.

When ATVs are Driven on Public Highways, They Are “Motor Vehicles” for Purposes of State Suspension Laws

In a recent criminal law matter, the Supreme Court of Connecticut affirmed a trial court’s revocation of a defendant’s probation after he operated his all-terrain vehicle (ATV) on public roads while his driver’s license was suspended.

In this case, the defendant pled guilty to driving under the influence as a third-time offender. He was sentenced to three years’ incarceration, execution suspended after one year, with three years’ probation. The following conditions of probation were imposed: a general condition prohibiting the violation of any state criminal statute, and a special condition prohibiting the operation of a motor vehicle with a suspended license. The Department of Motor Vehicles permanently suspended the defendant’s driver’s license due to his history of suspensions. The defendant served the one unsuspended year in jail, then began his probation. Before the term expired, he received two criminal citations after he operated an ATV in the travel lanes of town roads. Therefore, he was subsequently charged with operating a motor vehicle with a suspended license in violation of CGS § 14-215, as well as violation of probation.

A probation revocation hearing was held, where the trial court determined that the defendant violated the general and special conditions. His probation was revoked, and he was ordered to serve the remaining two years of his suspended sentence. The defendant appealed, arguing that CGS § 14-215(c) was unconstitutionally vague with respect to application to ATV usage. As he emphasized, “a person of ordinary intelligence could not reasonably have been expected to know that the term ‘motor vehicle’ included an ATV.”

Everyone is presumed to know the law, and ignorance is no excuse from criminal punishment. However, laws must be drafted so that “ordinary people understand what conduct is prohibited and in a manner that does not encourage arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement.” So long as the meaning of the statute can be fairly ascertained, it won’t be struck down as void for vagueness. In this case, the burden rested with the defendant to “demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that [CGS § 14-215(c)], as applied to him, deprived him of adequate notice of what conduct the statute proscribed or that he fell victim to arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement.”

CGS § 14-215(c) makes it a crime for a person to operate a motor vehicle while their driver’s license is under suspension. This statute is located in Chapter 248, which defines “motor vehicle” as including “all vehicles used on public highways.” In CGS § 14-212(9), “vehicle” is synonymous with “motor vehicle,” so the Supreme Court opined that if an ATV qualifies as a vehicle, it is a motor vehicle for purposes of the suspension law. The Court considered the definitions of ATV under other statutes, which use the language “a self-propelled vehicle” and “motorized vehicle.” CGS §§ 14-379 and 23-26a. Thus, for purposes of CGS § 14-215(c), an ATV was a motor vehicle when used on a public highway.

With this statutory framework in mind, the Supreme Court determined that the defendant failed to meet his burden. Rather, CGS § 14-215(c) “affords a person of ordinary intelligence with fair warning that he is prohibited from operating an ATV on a public highway while his license is suspended.” The Court found that the statute was not unconstitutionally vague, and the trial court did not err in revoking the defendant’s probation.

When faced with a charge of operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated (a.k.a. driving under the influence) or operation under 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.

Court Denies DUI Convict’s Request for Declaratory Judgment; License Suspensions Complied with Applicable Statutes

In a recent criminal law matter, a Superior Court of Connecticut found in favor of the defendant Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) after the plaintiff unsuccessfully asserted his claims of equal protection and due process violations following his license suspensions.

In this case, the plaintiff was arrested for operating a motor vehicle while under the influence (OMVUI) of alcohol in violation of Connecticut General Statutes (CGS) § 14-227a. Police notified the DMV of the arrest, who held an administrative license suspension hearing. The hearing officer found that the plaintiff refused to submit to a chemical alcohol test, among three other considerations, and pursuant to CGS § 14-227b(i), ordered that the plaintiff’s driver’s license be suspended for six months.

The plaintiff fully served this administrative suspension before pleading guilty to OMVUI. In connection with this criminal conviction, the DMV ordered that the plaintiff’s driver’s license be suspended for twelve months in accordance with CGS § 14-227a(g). Plaintiff’s counsel requested a “credit” of six months in light of the administrative suspension, but the DMV denied this request. DMV practice allows administrative and criminal suspensions to run concurrently for whatever period of overlap exists, as long as they arose from the same incident. However, it is not DMV policy to issue credits against new suspensions when prior ones have already been fully served.

The plaintiff sought declaratory judgment, arguing that the DMV’s actions were unconstitutional. He first alleged that the DMV policy violated equal protection because it “confers a benefit on those able to serve some or all of their suspensions concurrently, while denying that benefit to those who must serve them consecutively.” The plaintiff further contended that his procedural due process rights were violated because the DMV did not advise him of the practice, thus depriving him of being able to make an informed decision regarding when to plead guilty.

Equal protection directs that similarly situated people be treated alike. This clause is implicated when a statute “either on its face or in practice, treats persons standing in the same relation to it differently.” The threshold inquiry for a reviewing court is whether a petitioner is “similarly situated for purposes of the challenged government action.” However, the equal protection clause does not prohibit a government entity from treating those who are not similar in a dissimilar manner. In this case the Superior Court found that the plaintiff was similarly situated to drivers who have completed one suspension when the other is imposed, not drivers who were serving one suspension when subject to a second. Because the plaintiff failed to meet his burden proving dissimilar treatment, his equal protection claim failed.

To establish a due process violation, a plaintiff must prove “1) that he has been deprived of a property interest cognizable under the due process clause; and 2) that deprivation occurred without due process of law.” In this case, the Court readily agreed that deprivation of a driver’s license clearly satisfies the first prong, but the plaintiff’s claim failed with respect to the second element. The suspensions were imposed in accordance to guidelines set forth in CGS §§ 14-227a and 14-227b, and the plaintiff did not provide any support for “for the proposition that the [DMV] was obligated to give him notice of the [DMV’s] practice.” Therefore, the plaintiff’s due process claim also failed, and his request for declaratory judgment was denied.

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.

In Light of Recently Decided Precedent Regarding Breath Tests, Court Affirms Judgment in Pending DUI Appeal

In a recent criminal law matter, the Appellate Court of Connecticut considered whether a court improperly denied a defendant’s motions in limine to exclude toxicology evidence that he argued did not comply with statutory requirements.

This case arose from an incident that occurred after midnight on July 10, 2004. The defendant was driving his vehicle on the Merritt Parkway when he drove off the Exit 38 off-ramp and hit multiple trees before coming to a stop. A Norwalk police officer arrived and observed the defendant outside the vehicle, but the defendant denied that he was the driver. Soon thereafter, a state trooper arrived and made the following observations of the defendant: the smell of alcohol, red glassy eyes, and a cut on his hand and lip. He concluded that the defendant was the driver, and administered field sobriety tests, which the defendant failed.

The defendant was brought to the state police barracks in Bridgeport and asked when he started to drink. He responded he consumed four beers at a restaurant in Stamford beginning at 10pm the night before and stopped drinking after the accident occurred. He additionally noted that he did not have anything to eat since breakfast the morning before. The defendant submitted to two breath tests on the Intoxilyzer 5000 machine, which resulted in blood alcohol content readings of 0.225 and 0.209, both more than two-and-a-half times the legal limit.

The defendant was charged with operating a motor vehicle with an elevated blood alcohol content, which violated Connecticut General Statutes (CGS) § 14-227a(a)(2). Before trial, he submitted several motions in limine exclude the Intoxilyzer results, claiming that the tests “did not comply with state regulations in force at the time of the incident.” The court denied the motion, noting that the breath tests performed in this case were in compliance. The defendant plead nolo contendere (no contest), and after sentencing he appealed his conviction. He argued that the court improperly denied his motion because “the apparatus reports blood alcohol content in terms of weight per volume percent and not a weight per weight percent.”

After the defendant’s initial brief was submitted, but prior to adjudication of this appeal, the Appellate Court published its decision in State v. Pilotti, 99 Conn. App. 563 (2007). In Pilotti, the facts were substantially the same and the defendant made the same argument as presented in the case at bar. The Pilotti Court noted that the legislature intended to include breath testing under CGS § 14-227a(b), not just blood testing, and further wrote:

[CGS] § 14-227a(b) requires the state to establish as a foundation for the admissibility of chemical analysis evidence that the test was performed with equipment approved by the department of public safety. It does not require … that the device satisfy the criteria set forth in the regulations.

In other words, evidence will not be deemed inadmissible where “testing that complies with the regulatory requirements is deemed to be competent evidence.” Thus, in the case at bar, the Appellate Court found that Pilotti was controlling, and because this case was nearly identical, it held that use of the Intoxilyzer 5000 machine satisfied the statutory requirements of CGS § 14-227a(b).

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.

Court Finds Sufficient Evidence to Convict Where Inebriated Defendant Drove on Public Highways to Get to Private Road

In a recent criminal law matter, the Appellate Court of Connecticut considered whether the State provided insufficient evidence to support the defendant’s conviction for operating a motor vehicle while under the influence (OMVUI) in violation of Connecticut General Statutes § 14-227a.

This case arose from an incident that occurred on February 1, 2005. The defendant spent the late afternoon and evening with friends at various restaurants in Brookfield and Danbury, where she consumed alcoholic beverages. The manager at the third restaurant asked the defendant to leave because “she was being loud and vulgar and was annoying other patrons.” Around 7:30pm, the defendant drove her car to a nearby dead-end street and parked it in the middle of the road, obstructing traffic in both directions.

A resident called police because the car was still there an hour and fifteen minutes later. When the officer arrived, he saw that the motor was running with the taillights illuminated and radio on. The defendant was sound asleep in the driver’s seat, but with significant effort, the officer was able to wake her up. The defendant had bloodshot eyes, smelled of alcohol, and was quite disoriented. She quickly became uncooperative and would not obey the officer’s orders. The officer was unable to administer the field sobriety tests because of the defendant’s “combative and aggressive behavior.” At the police station, the defendant refused to submit to the breathalyzer test.

The defendant was charged with OMVUI, among other crimes. At trial, defense counsel argued that the defendant was only seen operating her car on the dead-end street, which was not a public highway under § 14-227a. The State countered that she traveled on two public highways to get to the dead-end street, thus satisfying this element. The defendant was convicted on all counts and appealed, arguing, in part, that there was insufficient evidence to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that she committed OMVUI.

To convict a defendant of OMVUI, the State must prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that he operated a motor vehicle on a public highway while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. When a reviewing court adjudicates a sufficiency of the evidence claim, it construes the evidence so as to favor sustaining the verdict. It then determines whether, based on the facts and attendant inferences, a reasonable jury would have found that “the cumulative effect of the evidence established guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.” The jury is the “arbiter of credibility,” and it is not expected to leave common sense and knowledge “at the courtroom door.”

In this case, the Appellate Court found that a jury could reasonably conclude that the defendant was under the influence of the numerous alcoholic drinks she consumed before driving on various public highways to reach the dead-end street. The State met its burden of providing sufficient evidence satisfying the three elements of OMVUI, and after addressing an additional matter on appeal, the Appellate Court affirmed the judgment.

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.

High Court Considers Whether Second DUI Conviction in Ten Years Is a Felony

In a recent criminal law matter, the Supreme Court of Connecticut considered whether a second DUI conviction within a period of ten years was a felony, or simply fell within the motor vehicle violation exception to the term “offense.”

In this case, the plaintiff was convicted of operating a motor vehicle while under the influence (OMVUI), in violation of Connecticut General Statutes (CGS) § 14-227a, for the second time within ten years. Upon asking for a copy of his criminal record, the plaintiff saw that he was designated as a “convicted felon.” He petitioned the defendant, the Commissioner of Public Safety, to repeal regulations permitting the label, but the request was denied. The plaintiff promptly brought this action against the defendant.

The trial court concluded that even though a second OMVUI conviction “carries a term of incarceration consistent with the definition of a felony [greater than one year],” it is not a felony because pursuant to CGS § 53a-24(a), the motor vehicle violation exception applied. The defendant was permanently enjoined “from labeling any person as a convicted felon on the basis of a second conviction under § 14-227a within a ten-year period.” The defendant appealed, contending that the legislature intended that a second OMVUI conviction within ten years would be a felony and that the trial court misapplied the exception. Conversely, the plaintiff argued that the court’s conclusion was proper.

When a court embarks on an exercise of statutory interpretation, it must determine “whether the statute, when read in context, is susceptible to more than one reasonable interpretation.” If a statute’s language is ambiguous, the courts will consider legislative history, legislative policy, and the relationship of the statute in question to related legislation and common law principles. If, however, the statute was plain and unambiguous, “extratextual evidence of the meaning of the statute shall not be considered.”

In this case, the Supreme Court determined that the plain language of CGS § 14-227a shows the legislature intended that a violation constituted a criminal offense. It cites repeated use of “prosecution” and “criminal penalties” in the language, as well as the increasing penalties imposed. The Court noted that because two enumerated motor vehicle felonies may constitute “prior conviction[s] for the same offense as [OMVUI],” the legislature intended that OMVUI would be a comparable felony.

The plaintiff argued, however, that the breach in question fell under the motor vehicle violation exception of CGS § 53a-24(a), and therefore could not be a felony. “Motor vehicle violation” is not defined, though “violation” is defined as an offense punishable only by a fine. The Court determined that it is reasonable to apply this definition to “motor vehicle violation.” Because the legislature did not include such a definition in CGS § 14-227a, the Court stated that this “is evidence that the legislature did not intent for it to fall within the motor vehicle violation exception to the definition of offense.”

The court conceded, however, that “violation” and “motor vehicle violation” as used in CGS § 53a-24(a) could have multiple reasonable definitions. Did it just apply to breaches where a fine was the only punishment, or also those cases where a court could impose a term of incarceration? Because the answer was not clear, the Court reconsidered the meaning of § 14-227a in light of available extratextual evidence. The extensive legislative history of this statute supported the proposition that a second OMVUI conviction was a felony, a position bolstered by Connecticut case law, comparable statutes in forty-four other states, and ever-increasing penalties for breach. In addition, the Court noted that the legislature has long considered OMVUI a serious crime, and “[c]onstruing § 14-227a so that a breach is not a criminal offense… would frustrate the clear intent and public policy behind [the statute].” Thus, the Court found that a second OMVUI conviction within a ten-year term is a felony, and the judgment was reversed and remanded, instructing the trial court to enter judgment in favor of the defendant.

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.

High Court Finds Officer Lacked Reasonable and Articulable Suspicion in DUI Traffic Stop Based Solely on Object Hanging From Rearview Mirror

In a recent criminal law matter, the Supreme Court of Connecticut considered whether the lower courts erred in dismissing charges against the defendant because the arresting officer did not have a reasonable and articulable suspicion warranting a traffic stop.

In this case, a police officer received anonymous tips about an intoxicated driver, and the make and license plate number provided matched the defendant’s vehicle. The officer did not observe any erratic driving, though he noticed a chain and cross hanging from the rearview mirror. This wooden object was a total of one inch wide and ten inches long. Because of the officer’s “mistaken, albeit good faith, believe that [Connecticut General Statutes (CGS)] § 14-99f(c) makes it an infraction for a car to be driven with any object hanging from a rearview mirror,” he initiated a traffic stop on the basis of the wooden object alone.

The defendant was subsequently arrested and charged with operating a motor vehicle while under the influence (OMVUI), operation without a license, and operation with an obstructed view, in violation of CGS §§ 14-227a, 14-213, and 14-99f(c), respectively. The defendant filed a motion to suppress evidence, alleging the traffic stop was illegal because the officer had neither probable cause nor reasonable suspicion to initiate it. The trial court agreed and granted the motion, noting that the officer did not personally corroborate the unreliable tips. When the trial court later issued a Supplemental Finding of Fact, it wrote:

A reading of [§ 14-99f(c)] makes it clear that a violation of the statute is predicated upon an object obstructing the view of the driver or distracting the driver. [The officer’s] stop of the defendant was not based on a violation of the statute, but was based solely on the fact that there was something hanging from the defendant’s mirror.

The trial court dismissed all charges against the defendant, and the State appealed. The Appellate Court agreed with the trial court’s determination, additionally noting that “our statute does not proscribe all items hanging from a rearview mirror.” The State promptly appealed.

Investigatory stops under Terry v. Ohio are legal so long as the officer has a reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot, a reasonable purpose for the stop, and the scope and character of the stop is reasonable in light of the purpose. The reasonable suspicion standard requires “some minimal level of objective justification for making the stop.” This requires factual support rather than hypothetical possibility.

In this case, the State was required to prove, under § 14-99f(c), that the officer had a reasonable and articulable suspicion “that the chain and/or cross that he had observed was, or had been, obstructing the defendant’s vision or distracting his attention.” In this regard, the state failed to meet its burden. The officer simply testified seeing the object – nothing more. As the court elaborated:

[The officer] did not say that he had seen the defendant peering around the object, glancing toward the object and away from the road ahead of him or driving his car in such a manner to suggest that his view was obstructed or that he was distracted. Indeed, the state presented no testimony that [the officer] considered the hanging chain to present an obstruction to the defendant’s view of the roadway.

Furthermore, the Supreme Court found that the wooden object simply was not objectively large enough to obstruct the defendant’s view. Therefore, the Supreme Court upheld the Appellate Court’s decision that the trial court properly dismissed the case.

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.

Facebook Photographs Depicting Alcohol Consumption Properly Considered in Probation Revocation Hearing

In a recent criminal law matter, the Supreme Court of Connecticut upheld a defendant’s probation revocation, finding that photographic evidence had a “minimal indicium of reliability” allowing their consideration by the trial court.

In this case, the defendant was convicted of operating a motor vehicle while under the influence by a person under age twenty-one, in violation of General Statutes § 14-227g, following an accident resulting in the drowning death of a passenger. She was sentenced to five years incarceration, execution suspended after one year, and five years probation. Eleven special conditions of probation were imposed, including operation of a car only with a valid license and the installation of an ignition interlock device on any car she owned or operated.

While on probation, the defendant was involved in a minor non-alcohol-related accident, and police determined she violated the above two conditions. A probation hearing was held, where the State sought revocation and imposition of the remaining four years incarceration. It argued the defendant was a “marginal probationer… worshipping at the altar of alcohol and debauchery and lewd behavior.” To support its position, the State referenced photographs (photos) posted on Facebook which, it asserted, depicted the defendant while on probation. Some of the photos “demonstrate or suggest alcohol consumption by the defendant” in various social settings. Defense counsel argued for a more lenient sentence because the violations were not severe and alcohol was not involved in the accident. He asserted that the images did not represent the defendant and were undated.

The court stated that alcohol consumption was an aggravating factor in the original sentence and it was appalled that the defendant “still has the audacity to go back on Facebook and show herself in the condition of being intoxicated.” When given the opportunity to respond to the prosecutor’s and court’s statements, the defendant simply apologized for what she did and asserted she did not drive after drinking. When the State sought to introduce the photos, defense counsel objected, arguing a potential due process violation. However, the court overruled, stating that “it could consider any evidence in a sentencing hearing as long as the evidence was found to be reliable.”

At the conclusion of the hearing, the court imposed a three-year sentence because the court believed that “the beneficial purposes of probation are no longer being served.” The defendant appealed, claiming that the Facebook photos were not reliable. However, the Appellate Court affirmed, noting that the claim was unpreserved and did not warrant special review because it did not involve a constitutional violation. The defendant then sought remedy with the Supreme Court.

When trial courts consider whether to impose an original sentence and order incarceration, it must exercise an informed use of discretion. The sentencing judge has authority to consider “a wide variety of information… only if it has some minimal indicium of reliability.” Particularly telling, “the absence of a denial itself provides an important [indicium] of reliability.” Therefore, a judge’s determination will be upheld “[a]s long as [he] has a reasonable, persuasive basis for relying on the information which he uses to fashion his ultimate sentence.”

In this case, the Supreme Court noted that the only suggestion the defendant denied as that she drove after drinking. She did not contest the prosecutor’s and court’s statements, and did not deny that the behavior depicted in the photos occurred while she was on probation. Rather, the court noted, “the defendant merely challenged the probative force of the evidence itself, not the underlying truth to which the evidence purportedly speaks.” Therefore, the Court concluded that the photos had the minimal indicia of reliability which would survive constitutional analysis in a probation revocation hearing setting. It affirmed the judgment of the Appellate Court.

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.

Being Asleep at the Wheel of a Parked, but Running, Vehicle Constitutes “Operation” Under State DUI Law

In a recent criminal law matter, the Appellate Court of Connecticut considered whether a driver, who was asleep in the driver’s seat of his car while it was still running, operated a motor vehicle under Connecticut’s DUI law.

This case arose from an incident that occurred after midnight on December 24, 2005. Officers found the defendant asleep in the driver’s seat of his motor vehicle while the engine was still running. After waking the defendant and observing him as visibly intoxicated, the officers administered the standard field sobriety tests, all of which the defendant failed. The defendant was arrested, and at the police department, he submitted to two chemical alcohol tests, which revealed the defendant’s blood alcohol content as more than twice the legal limit.

The defendant was charged with operating a motor vehicle while under the influence (OMVUI) of alcohol, in violation of Connecticut General Statutes § 14-227a. He filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that he was not operating his car. Rather, “he merely was asleep in his motor vehicle on a cold night with the motor running only to provide heat and power to run the radio.” However, the court denied the motion, and the defendant entered into a conditional plea of nolo contendere. Such a conditional plea reserves a defendant’s right to appeal. After sentencing, the defendant appealed, arguing that the court’s denial of his motion to dismiss was improper.

Under Connecticut case law, “operation” of a motor vehicle does not require that the vehicle actually be driven. Rather, “the insertion of a key into the ignition is an act… which alone or in sequence will set into motion the motive power of the vehicle.” Thus, simply putting the key into the ignition “constitute[s] operation of a motor vehicle within the meaning of § 14-227a(a).” This proposition has been upheld, for example, even when the operator is unconscious in the driver’s seat while the engine is running. In this case, the Appellate Court found that the defendant operated his car because he was in the driver’s seat of his vehicle with the engine turned on; it did not matter, for purposes of “operation,” that he was asleep at the time. Therefore, the trial court properly denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss, and the Appellate Court affirmed judgment.

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.

DUI Defendant Contests Traffic Stop, Claiming Lack of Reasonable and Articulable Suspicion

In a recent criminal law matter, a Superior Court of Connecticut considered a defendant’s motion to suppress evidence arguing that the arresting officer did not have grounds to initiate a traffic stop based solely on a cluster of air fresheners hanging from his rearview mirror.

This case arose from an incident that occurred just after midnight on January 24, 2007. A police officer noticed “a large cluster of air freshener ornaments hanging from the rearview mirror” of the defendant’s car, a potential violation of Connecticut General Statutes (CGS) § 14-99f(c), a State traffic law. At this time, the defendant was not showing any sign of erratic driving. The officer initiated a traffic stop and immediately noticed “a very strong odor of alcohol” as well as the defendant’s bloodshot, glassy eyes. The defendant failed three sobriety tests and was arrested; a subsequent search of the vehicle revealed an open bottle of Yukon Jack liquor that was partially empty.

The defendant was charged with operating a motor vehicle while under the influence (OMVUI) in violation of CGS § 14-227a. He filed a motion to suppress evidence, claiming that the officer did not have a reasonable and articulable suspicion to stop his vehicle. The defendant argued that the officer had to believe that the air fresheners actually obstructed his vision through the windshield, but the State stated that “anything hung from the rearview mirror necessarily obstructs and/or distracts.” The defendant countered that regardless of what someone hangs, it would be a per se violation allowing officers to pull people over on a whim, thus negating Fourth Amendment protections.

Officers may perform investigatory stops if they have a reasonable and articulable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot. In Connecticut, officers have authority to stop a motor vehicle for a mere traffic infraction, such as under CGS § 14-99f(c). Pursuant to this statute, “No article, device, sticker or ornament shall be attached or affixed to or hung on or in any motor vehicle in such a manner or location as to interfere with the operator’s unobstructed view of the highway or to distract the attention of the operator.” Citing a Virginia appellate decision, the Superior Court acknowledged that many motorists drive with objects hanging from their rearview mirrors: “The variety and the frequency with which objects are suspended from rearview mirrors may be a reflection of the egocentricity of the driver and of the public’s general ignorance of the statutory prohibition, but that does not excuse the conduct.” (Emphasis added)

In this case, the Superior Court noted that CGS § 14-99f(c) requires the driver’s view remain unobstructed, not that the view actually be obstructed. Therefore, in Connecticut, if a hung object either “1) interfere[s] with the unobstructed view of the operator, or 2) distract[s] the operator,” he or she will have violated the statute. Because the officer in this case could reasonably conclude that the cluster of air fresheners obstructed the defendant’s “peripheral vision in the right-hand direction,” he had a reasonable and articulable suspicion to initiate a brief traffic stop to confirm or dispel his suspicion of a traffic violation. After quickly addressing and rejecting additional claims, the Court denied the defendant’s motion to suppress.

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.