State v. Eldred:  Court of Appeals Evaluates Sufficiency of Circumstantial Evidence of DWI

Consider whether the following facts are sufficient to support a conviction for DWI:

The scene. Law enforcement officers in Avery County respond to a reported accident on the highway leading to Grandfather Mountain around 8:30 p.m. They find a Jeep Cherokee on the side of the highway, with a damaged side panel. Tire impressions indicate that the vehicle traveled about 100 feet after leaving the roadway. A large rock embankment along the roadway is scuffed. No one is in the car, which is registered to Paul Eldred.

The defendant. A law enforcement officer finds Eldred walking along the side of the highway two or three miles north of the accident. Eldred has a mark on his forehead, is twitching, and is unsteady on his feet. The officer asks Eldred why he is walking on the highway. Eldred responds:  “I don’t know, I’m too smoked up on meth.” The officer calls for medical help, and Eldred is taken to the hospital.

The interview. Another officer questions Eldred at the hospital around 10 p.m. Eldred explains that he was driving his car when it ran out of gas. He then says “‘he was hurt bad and was involved in a wreck a couple of hours ago.’” Eldred tells the officer that he had not been drinking alcohol. The officer asks whether Eldred has taken any medications, and Eldred says he is “on meth.” During the interview, Eldred is twitching, appears dazed and has difficulty answering questions. He does not know the date, the day of the week, or the time.

The court of appeals held yesterday in State v. Eldred, ___ N.C. App. ___ (May 1, 2018), that these facts were not sufficient to warrant submission of DWI charges against Eldred to the jury. The court agreed with Eldred’s assertion that the State failed to present evidence that Eldred was impaired while he was driving.

The court identified the following deficiencies in the State’s evidence:

  • The State presented no evidence of when the first officer found Eldred on the side of the road.
  • The officer did not determine whether Eldred’s condition was caused by an impairing substance or instead by the physical injury that resulted in him being taken to the hospital.
  • The officer who interviewed Eldred at the hospital did not see Eldred until more than 90 minutes after the accident had been reported.
  • The interviewing officer did not obtain information about when or where Eldred consumed meth or any other impairing substance.
  • The State did not demonstrate when the car veered off the roadway.
  • No witness saw Eldred driving.

The court noted that Eldred owned the vehicle and that he admitted to driving and wrecking it a couple of hours earlier. But, the court said, Eldred did not admit that he had been “smoked up on meth” or otherwise impaired while he was driving. And, the court said, the State presented no evidence, direct or circumstantial, to establish that element of the crime of DWI.

The way-back machine. The court of appeals compared the facts in Eldred to two half-century-old cases:  State v. Hough, 229 N.C. 532 (1948), and State v. Collins, 247 N.C. 244 (1957). In Hough, the state supreme court considered the State’s evidence of DWI insufficient to raise more than a conjecture of impairment. The officers who encountered Hough soon after he flipped his car could not tell whether he was impaired by alcohol (which he admitted to drinking) or whether his condition was a result of injuries he sustained in the accident.  In Collins, in contrast, the state supreme court upheld the defendant’s conviction of impaired driving. There, the defendant was thrown from his car after he crossed the center line and hit another car. The defendant turned down offers for medical help, left the scene, and rode by 45 minutes later in a taxi cab. An officer stopped the cab and interacted with the defendant.  The officer noted that the defendant had a strong odor of alcohol on his breath, had urinated on his pants, had incoherent speech, and that he could not stand without help. The state supreme court held that this evidence of the defendant’s intoxication was not too remote or speculative to permit a legitimate inference that he was driving while impaired at the time of the crash.

The Eldred court thought the facts before it were more similar to Hough than to Collins. It cited the first officer’s failure to determine whether impairment or injury caused defendant’s condition and the second officer’s failure to obtain information about when or where Eldred had consumed meth or any other impairing substance.

Cases the court did not cite. Another long-in-the-tooth case came to my mind when I read Eldred:  State v. Cummings, 267 N.C. 300 (1966).  In that case, an officer responded to the scene of an accident shortly after it occurred. The defendant admitted that he had consumed two beers. The officer thought the defendant was impaired and charged him with impaired driving. Cummings was convicted and appealed. On appeal, the state supreme court rejected Cummings’ argument that the circumstantial evidence in the case was insufficient to support his conviction. Among other observations, the court opined that “a driver who admits he had had two beers (as defendant admitted) and has a collision isn’t likely to hurry off for more intoxicants to make his condition more noticeable and his breath more ‘odoriferous.’ The jury was fully justified in finding that the defendant, when seen by the officer, and later tested by the Breathalyzer, was, if anything, less intoxicated than at the time of the collision.” Id. at 301-02.

To be sure, the facts in Cummings are different from Eldred. In Cummings, the circumstances convincingly established that the accident had just occurred. In Eldred, the time line was far less precise.

Eldred also put me in mind of the court of appeals’ more recent decision in State v. Foye, 220 N.C. App. 37 (2012). In that case, an officer heard the defendant’s car crash and responded to the scene. He found the car in the ditch. No one was in the car and the keys were not in the ignition. The driver’s side door was jammed closed.  There was blood between the driver’s seat and passenger seat, on the steering wheel, and on the back of the passenger seat.

Officers found the defendant walking on a road near the accident about 30 minutes later. He had an injury to the left side of his cheek, consistent with the impact of a steering wheel or seatbelt, and blood on his hands. He was noticeably impaired and admitted to having driven the car. A subsequent blood test revealed an alcohol concentration of .18.

The Foye court deemed this evidence sufficient for a reasonable jury to infer that the defendant was impaired at the time he drove the vehicle. Id. at 43 (citing State v. Mack, 81 N.C. App. 578, 583 (1986) for proposition that evidence does not have to exclude every reasonable hypothesis of innocence to be sufficient to establish guilt).

Again, while Eldred is similar to Foye, the timeline in Eldred was far less well-defined than in Foye. Eldred said he had been in a wreck a couple of hours earlier. In Foye, the officers encountered the defendant within 30 minutes of the accident.

And in Eldred, these distinctions made all the difference.

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