The court of appeals held yesterday in State v. Fincher, ___ N.C. App. ___, ___ S.E.2d ____ (2018), that the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it permitted a drug recognition expert to testify in a DWI trial that the defendant was under the influence of a central nervous system depressant. The defendant argued that the State failed to lay a sufficient foundation to establish the reliability of the drug recognition examination, but the court determined that no such foundation was required as the General Assembly had legislatively sanctioned the admission of this type of evidence under Rule 702(a1)(2).
Category Archives: Motor Vehicles
I recently summarized a Fourth Circuit traffic stop case arising out of western North Carolina, U.S. v. Bowman, 884 F.3d 200 (4th Cir. 2018). It’s an interesting case in its own right as an application of U.S. v. Rodriguez, 135 S. Ct. 1609 (2015) (holding that extensions of a traffic stop must be supported by reasonable suspicion). In short, the Fourth Circuit reversed the trial court’s denial of the defendant’s motion to suppress, finding that the trooper lacked reasonable suspicion to extend the stop after the traffic stop was completed and vacating the defendant’s drug conviction. There are interesting issues in the case about when a seizure occurs and about whether the defendant consented to the extension of the stop, and readers are encouraged to check out the case, or at least the summary here (you can read all of the Fourth Circuit case updates here).
What caught my eye about it was a footnote in the opinion. Before the state trooper encountered the defendant, the Drug Enforcement Administration (“DEA”) passed along a tip to the local authorities in N.C. that the defendant’s vehicle was suspected of trafficking meth. That tip provided the vehicle’s license plate number and a description (“a red, older model Lexus”). According to the footnote, “The government agrees that the DEA tip should not be considered in any way in our legal analysis.” Slip op. at 3 n.1. Why would that be? After some digging and help from attorneys in the Charlotte Office of Federal Public Defender (thanks again to Ann Hester, Kevin Tate, and Mary Ellen Coleman from that office for talking about the case with me), I was able to determine that this was an instance of a so-called “whisper” stop. Although not exactly a new practice, its application in the digital age raises interesting questions. The tip aspect of the case is not discussed in Bowman beyond the brief mention in the footnote, but the case is a clear sign that the practice is occurring in North Carolina and elsewhere, so I wanted to cover it in today’s post. Continue reading →
I was out for a run the other day when I saw signs posted on a private pathway advising me not to exceed 7.5 miles per hour since children were playing. Sadly for my split times (but happily for the children at play), I was in no danger of exceeding this limit. Those signs reminded me, however, of a question that I’m asked from time to time: Are the speed limits posted on private subdivision streets enforceable?
The easiest way for the State to prove impairment in a prosecution for impaired driving is by introducing the results of a test of the defendant’s breath. Such test results are admissible without the foundation that would otherwise be required for this kind of scientific evidence so long as the testing was carried out in accordance with statutory and administrative rules governing implied consent testing. G.S. 20-139.1(b). Because the rule allowing breath test results to be introduced into evidence is relied upon so often, I thought it might be helpful to review the admissibility rule and the requirements for such tests. Continue reading →
After a bad break-up, Dan drives to a local bar, where he begins drinking. He hasn’t planned in advance how he is going to get home. If he drinks too much to drive, he thinks, he will summon a ride on his smart phone. Dan is on his seventh drink in two hours when a man storms through the front door of the bar, waving an assault rifle and threatening to shoot up the place. Dan bolts for the nearest exit, jumps in his car, and drives away. Less than a half-mile away from the bar, Dan runs through a red light and is stopped by a law enforcement officer. Dan is subsequently charged with driving while impaired. At trial, he asks the judge to instruct the jury on the defense of necessity. Is Dan entitled to that instruction?
The number of people killed in motor vehicle crashes in the United States increased in by 5.6 percent from 2015 to 2016. In 2016, 37,461 people were killed in crashes on U.S. roadways, compared to 35,485 the previous year. North Carolina’s fatality figures followed the national trend, with fatalities increasing from 1,379 in 2015 to 1,450 in 2016, a 5.1 percent increase. Many such fatalities result in criminal vehicular homicide charges, which number in the hundreds each year in North Carolina alone.
Investigators and prosecutors in such cases are increasingly relying upon the vehicle itself to tell the story of what happened during and just before the crash. Many vehicles driven today (and nearly all manufactured in the past five years) are equipped with an Event Data Recorder (EDR) installed by the manufacturer. An EDR, often referred to as a car’s black box, contains data related to various aspects of the car’s operation seconds before a crash, including its speed, whether the brakes were applied, and the position of its gas pedal. This kind of evidence can play a central role in the State’s attempt to show culpably negligent driving. But how may the State lawfully obtain EDR information? And, once obtained, how may it be introduced into evidence?
Last week I wrote about studies examining the prevalence of driving with drugs in one’s system. Research has shown that an increasing number of drivers have detectable drugs in their symptoms. What we don’t yet know is how many of those drivers are impaired by drugs and whether the incidence of drug-impaired driving is increasing.
We do know, of course, that drug-impaired driving is dangerous. Policy-makers in North Carolina and elsewhere have attempted to combat the problem by enacting zero-drug-tolerance laws and provisions that prohibit driving with a threshold of a drug or its metabolites in one’s body. And law enforcement officers across the country have created detection protocols that are geared specifically toward the drug-impaired driver rather than a driver impaired by alcohol.
Notwithstanding these measures, drug-impaired driving continues to be prosecuted in North Carolina and other states under statutory schemes and law enforcement protocol that were primarily written and developed to deter, detect and punish alcohol-impaired driving.
Courts across the country are increasingly being required to consider how those schemes and that protocol apply to drug-impaired driving prosecutions. This post will summarize recent court rulings on the admissibility in drugged driving prosecutions of (1) evidence regarding a defendant’s performance on field sobriety tests, (2) testimony about the effects of certain drugs, and (3) lay opinion testimony about the person’s impairment. It will also review recent opinions regarding the quantum of proof necessary to establish drug-impaired driving. It will conclude with a case that demonstrates why drugged driving is a matter of serious concern.
Ask someone to identify an emerging area of interest related to motor vehicle law and chances are the person will mention drugged driving. Indeed, the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy in 2010 set a goal of reducing the prevalence of drug-impaired driving by 10 percent by 2015. People who work in the field frequently cite anecdotal evidence supporting the notion that driving while impaired by drugs is becoming more common. And they usually cite anecdotal evidence in support. Are they right? Are more people these days driving while impaired by drugs?
Yesterday was opinion day at the court of appeals. And while it wasn’t officially designated as DWI opinion day, several of yesterday’s opinions resolve significant and recurring issues in DWI litigation. Today’s post will cover the highlights. Continue reading →
In 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States decided Rodriguez v. United States, 575 U.S. __, 135 S. Ct. 1609 (2015). Rodriguez held that it was improper for an officer to extend a traffic stop for several minutes in order to conduct a dog sniff of the stopped vehicle. More generally, the decision requires an officer to pursue the “mission” of a traffic stop diligently, without measurably extending the duration of the stop for investigative activity unrelated to the purpose of the stop.
Our court of appeals has issued several decisions under Rodriguez, including some in defendants’ favor. Everyone has been waiting for those cases to make their way to the state supreme court. Now one has, and it turns out that the supreme court’s understanding of Rodriguez differs considerably from the view adopted by at least some panels of the court of appeals.