Legislation passed this fall allows for more remote license renewals, supports the study of futuristic license plates, exempts drivers and passengers in some open-air autocycles from helmet requirements, and makes it easier to buy an alcoholic beverage the day after your twenty-first birthday. Continue reading
Category Archives: Motor Vehicles
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently released this report on fatal motor vehicle crashes in 2018. The number of traffic fatalities nationwide decreased modestly last year as did the number of alcohol-impaired driving fatalities. In North Carolina, the number of fatalities in both categories modestly increased in 2018. In the aggregate, neither the national nor the state numbers reflect much change in the fatality rate associated with traffic crashes generally or impaired driving-related crashes specifically. While there were precipitous declines in alcohol-impaired driving fatalities from 1982 to 2000, since that time the number of impaired driving-related fatalities has remained rather constant. A similar plateau exists for all types of traffic fatalities, for which the fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled has remained relatively static for the last decade. This flat trend line has safety advocates wondering what they can do, particularly in the impaired driving context, to push the trend line toward zero.
Late last month, the Supreme Court decided Mitchell v. Wisconsin, 588 U.S. ___ (June 27, 2019), a case in which the petitioner argued that the State of Wisconsin violated the Fourth Amendment by withdrawing his blood while he was unconscious without a warrant, following his arrest for impaired driving. Like many other states, including North Carolina, Wisconsin has a state statute that permits such blood draws. The Wisconsin Supreme Court affirmed the petitioner’s conviction, though no single opinion from that court commanded a majority. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to decide “[w]hether a statute authorizing a blood draw from an unconscious motorist provides an exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement.” Though no justice found such a statutory exception and the judgment below was vacated, the outcome was not a win for the petitioner. Instead, a plurality of the court announced a State-favorable exigency rule, which it instructed the lower court to apply on remand.
May a law enforcement officer who personally investigates, but does not observe, a vehicle crash testify as to his opinion about who was driving the vehicle? Does the answer depend upon whether the officer is qualified as an expert in accident reconstruction? The court of appeals considered those questions in State v. Denton, ___ N.C. App. ___ (June 4, 2019), decided yesterday.
One person convicted of misdemeanor impaired driving may be placed on probation and ordered to complete 24 hours of community service. Another may receive an active sentence of three years’ imprisonment. The severity of the sentence depends largely on the presence of aggravating factors, which must be proved by the State.
When a misdemeanor impaired driving conviction entered in district court is appealed for trial de novo in superior court, the State must notify the defendant no later than ten days before trial that it intends to prove one or more aggravating factors. G.S. 20-179(a1)(1). If the State fails to provide that notice, the factors may not be used by the superior court to determine the defendant’s sentence. The court of appeals recently affirmed in State v. Hughes, ___ N.C. App. ___ (April 16, 2019), that there is no exception to this rule for aggravating factors that were found by the district court below.
The court of appeals just decided another case on the community caretaking doctrine. It’s the fourth published community caretaking case in the last five years, and there have been a couple of unpublished ones as well. The activity in the appellate division suggests that the doctrine is being invoked much more frequently in the trial courts. This post explains the new case and provides a quick refresher on the older ones.
The revocation of driver’s licenses for unpaid court costs and fines has been a hot topic of late. Much of the focus has centered around the spiral of debt that can result when an indigent person’s license is revoked for this reason. The narrative goes like this: The person is convicted of a relatively minor violation of the motor vehicle laws. Court costs and a fine are imposed. The person, who is financially unable to do so, fails to pay those amounts. Forty days after the judgment, the clerk of court reports the failure to pay to DMV. DMV mails a revocation order to the person, which becomes effective 60 days later. The person could forestall or end the revocation by paying the amounts owed, but she lacks the funds to do that. Yet she must drive in order to keep her job. So, notwithstanding the revocation, she continues to drive. Soon, she is charged with driving while license revoked and is convicted. Court costs are imposed again. And again, she lacks the funds to pay. DMV issues another revocation. When this cycle repeats itself over time, the person may wind up owing hundreds – or even thousands – of dollars in court debt, which, again, she lacks the resources to pay.
May an officer prolong a traffic stop to wait for a second officer to come to the scene? An officer may want another officer present to provide backup, or may need assistance from an officer who speaks Spanish, is proficient at administering Standardized Field Sobriety Tests, or is a certified Drug Recognition Expert. Under Rodriguez v. United States, 575 U.S. __ (2015), a traffic stop may last no longer than necessary to complete the “mission” of the stop — addressing the traffic violation that prompted the stop while attending to officer safety. When waiting for another officer is part of the mission of the stop is a question with which courts across the country are grappling. Continue reading →
The court of appeals decided State v. Shelton, ___ N.C. App. ___ (2019) yesterday, determining that the evidence of the defendant’s impairment was sufficient when he took impairing drugs hours before crashing his vehicle into a pedestrian after his brakes failed. Two aspects of the case are of particular interest: (1) the court’s evaluation of the sufficiency of the evidence in a case where no one opined that the defendant was impaired; and (2) how the State obtained evidence that drugs remained in the defendant’s system in the first place.
The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari a few weeks ago to consider whether a state statute authorizing the withdrawal of blood from an unconscious driver suspected of impaired driving provides an exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement. The case, Mitchell v. Wisconsin, arose in Wisconsin, but the issue may sound familiar to practitioners in North Carolina. Our state supreme court held in State v. Romano, 369 N.C. 678 (2017) (discussed here) that the warrantless withdrawal of blood from an unconscious DWI suspect pursuant to state statute when there was no exigency violated the Fourth Amendment. The Supreme Court of Wisconsin reached a different conclusion in Mitchell. The case provides the United States Supreme Court with an opportunity to tie up the ends it left loose in Birchfield v. North Dakota, ___ U.S. ___, 136 S. Ct. 2160 (2016) by clarifying how implied consent laws authorizing blood draws without a suspect’s consent do or do not comport with the Fourth Amendment. Continue reading →