Two of last week’s opinions from the North Carolina Supreme Court address significant legal issues arising in impaired driving cases. In State v. Godwin, the supreme court reversed the court of appeals, holding that the trial court was not required to explicitly recognize a law enforcement officer as an expert witness before the officer could testify to the results of a Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN) test. In State v. Romano, the supreme court upheld the court of appeals’ determination that the withdrawal of blood from an unconscious impaired driving defendant violated the Fourth Amendment, notwithstanding a state statute authorizing this practice.
The United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments this morning in three cases involving the chemical testing of impaired drivers. The question before the court in each case is whether, in the absence of a warrant, a state may make it a crime for a person to refuse to take a chemical test to detect the presence of alcohol in the person’s blood. I’m eager to hear what the high court has to say about this issue and to learn whether it will impact North Carolina’s implied consent laws, which, like the laws in every other state, do provide for warrantless chemical testing, but which do not criminalize refusal to be tested. But we don’t have to wait for the Supreme Court’s opinion to see how our state’s implied consent laws are evolving in a post-Missouri v. McNeely world. The North Carolina Court of Appeals decided a significant case yesterday, ruling in State v. Romano, __ N.C. App. ___ (2016), that the warrantless withdrawal of blood from an unconscious impaired driving suspect violated the Fourth Amendment, notwithstanding a state statute that permits such actions.
I almost missed this one. While I regularly monitor the published opinions of our state’s appellate courts, I generally skip the unpublished decisions. So I initially overlooked the court of appeals’ opinion in State v. Martinez, ___ S.E.2d ___ (N.C. App. Jan. 5, 2016) (first released as unpublished, but later published), which addresses a recurring question in DWI cases: Must a defendant who does not speak English be advised of statutory implied consent rights in a language that he or she understands?