The laws that govern drunk driving have changed quite a number of times over the last century.
The first “DUI” or driving under the influence laws were straightforward. It was simply against the law to drive a motorized vehicle if you were too drunk to drive carefully.
New York passed the first law against driving under the influence in 1910, and California quickly followed. While those first DUI laws banned intoxicated driving, they failed to define intoxication with any precision or specificity.
If an arresting officer testified that you were driving under the influence, that was usually enough to convict you.
When Prohibition ended, driving under the influence increased significantly. By the mid-1930s, lawmakers and judges felt increasing pressure to give the nation’s DUI laws some standardization and some “scientific” authority.
Tests conducted by the National Safety Council and the American Medical Association indicated that a motorist could be presumed to be too impaired to drive safely with a blood-alcohol content (BAC) level at or above 0.15 percent. Thus, beginning in the late 1930s, 0.15 percent became the “legal limit” for most states.
These were the first “per se” DUI laws, meaning that you are considered intoxicated “per se” at a particular BAC level – without regard to your actual driving behavior. A DUI per se is usually determined by a blood or a breath test or sometimes by a urine test.
WHAT IS THE CURRENT DUI LAW?
The per se legal limit for DUI remained at 0.15 percent in most states until the 1970s.
That’s when public opinion began to grow substantially less tolerant of driving under the influence. By the 1980s, activist groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) were aggressively lobbying state legislatures for tougher DUI laws, and lawmakers responded.
The drinking age returned to 21 in every state, and police agencies across the country made DUI enforcement a top priority. The BAC limit for drivers in most states was first lowered to 0.10 percent and then to 0.08 percent, which is the current legal BAC limit in all fifty states.
“Per se” DUI laws make convictions easier for prosecutors, because DUI tests – and the “science” behind those tests – are treated as virtually infallible by police officers and prosecutors.
No testimony or other evidence is necessarily required – the per se DUI law means that a number alone can sometimes be legally enough to obtain a conviction. With the adoption of per se DUI laws, it no longer matters if a motorist is a danger to others. All that matters is the quantity of alcohol in the bloodstream.
CAN BREATHALYZER RESULTS BE CHALLENGED?
To make it even easier for prosecutors to win DUI convictions in California, this state’s Supreme Court has ruled that the general reliability of the breathalyzer devices used by California’s law enforcement officers in DUI investigations cannot be challenged in the state’s courts.
Those breathalyzers are used by police officers on a daily basis across this state to measure drivers’ intoxication levels. In a unanimous 2013 decision written by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, the California Supreme Court ruled that while a defendant accused of DUI may allege that a particular breathalyzer device was inaccurate in a particular instance, defendants may not challenge the general reliability of breathalyzer devices even with expert testimony.
That 2013 ruling in People v. Vangelder was the final result of what began in December 2007 as a traffic stop.
Terry Vangelder was stopped by California Highway Patrol Sgt. Richard W. Berg, who had observed Vangelder driving at more than 120 miles per hour. Sgt. Berg tested Vangelder’s intoxication level using the Intoximeter Alco-Sensor IV, a handheld device which measured BAC readings of 0.095 percent and 0.086 percent.
Soon after Vangelder’s arrest, an Intoximeter EC/IR produced two 0.08 BAC readings. At Vangelder’s original trial, University of Washington professor of medicine Dr. Michael P. Hlastala provided expert testimony for the defense.
Dr. Hlastala testified that breathalyzer tests are “inherently inaccurate” because they rely on the presumption that the alcohol level in a person’s breath corresponds precisely to the alcohol level in that person’s bloodstream. Even when it is functioning “properly,” according to Dr. Hlastala’s testimony, a breathalyzer device does not offer trustworthy results.
The trial judge in the Vangelder case excluded the professor’s testimony from jury consideration, and the California Supreme Court eventually agreed that Dr. Hlastala’s testimony was “speculative” and inadmissible.
The court will allow a challenge to the reliability of a specific breathalyzer device but not to the general use of breathalyzers by the state. If you are charged with driving under the influence, speak immediately with a good DUI lawyer, and in southern California, consult at once with an experienced Orange County DUI defense attorney. Any DUI charge is a serious threat to your freedom, your finances, and your future.
A good DUI defense attorney can evaluate your case, provide you with frank and candid legal advice, and work diligently for the justice you need and deserve.
SHOULD THE LIMIT BE LOWER?
Despite the tougher laws and heightened enforcement of the past several decades, drunk drivers still pose a genuine threat to the public’s safety.
Is the 0.08 percent BAC limit actually low enough? Many people think so, especially when you consider that the limit was 0.15 percent in most states only forty or so years back.
Some people, however, would like to see the legal BAC limit set even lower. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), for example, is recommending that the legal BAC level for motorists in every state should be reduced from 0.08 percent to 0.05 percent. The NTSB simply points to the statistics – in the U.S., about 10,000 fatalities and 170,000 injuries a year are caused by impaired drivers. Many South American and European nations already have set their legal BAC level at 0.05 percent.
The truth is that some motorists may be too intoxicated to drive safely even when their BAC levels are somewhat under 0.08 percent. According to the NTSB, at 0.05 percent, a driver’s chance of a traffic collision rises by 39 percent.
The NTSB believes that about one thousand fatalities a year could be avoided if every state reduced the legal BAC level to 0.05 percent. Opponents of reducing the legal BAC level insist that a 0.05 percent level will mean thousands of unnecessary arrests that will backlog the nation’s already-crowded DUI courts.
WHO CAN BE CHARGED WITH DUI?
However, drivers in California may already be charged with DUI even if they are not over the legal BAC limit.
Under California law, “it is unlawful for any person who is under the influence of any alcoholic beverage or drug, or under the combined influence of any alcoholic beverage and drug, to drive a vehicle.”
Even after one beer, the police in California can take you into custody and charge you with driving under the influence if you appear to be intoxicated. If an officer believes and is willing to testify that you were too impaired to drive safely, it may boil down to your word against the officer’s, with or without a breathalyzer test.
The fact is that the legal BAC limit is already lower than 0.08 percent for many of the drivers in the state. It is against the law in California for drivers under the age of 21 and for drivers who are on probation for a prior DUI conviction to drive with a BAC level at even 0.01 percent.
In other words, for all practical purposes, it is a zero-tolerance policy for these drivers. Because California’s legal drinking age is 21, drivers under 21 may not consume alcohol in any amount at all.
Underage drinking drivers are at fault for more than their share of alcohol-related traffic deaths in California, so the rules are stricter and the punishments can be more severe for drivers under age 21.
A driver who is convicted of underage DUI can serve from four days to six months in a county jail, be fined up to $2,600, and have his or her driver’s license suspended for up to ten months. A second underage DUI conviction can be punished by up to a year in jail, a fine of up to $2,800, and a one-to-two-year driver’s license suspension.
WHAT SHOULD YOU DO IF YOU FACE A DUI CHARGE?
If you are arrested and charged with DUI in California while you are serving probation for a prior DUI conviction, the legal BAC limit for you is also 0.01 percent, and if you’re convicted, you may serve up to six months in jail – along with other penalties.
If you face any DUI or DUI-related charge, now or in the future, speak to an experienced DUI lawyer as quickly as possible.
Do not plead guilty, and do not try to act as your own lawyer. The risks are far too great. Don’t even accept a plea bargain without first consulting a DUI lawyer.
In southern California, if you are charged with driving under the influence, consult with an experienced Orange County DUI defense attorney at once.
A good DUI attorney will provide the sound legal advice you need, defend your rights tenaciously, and fight hard for the best possible resolution to your DUI case. Legal help is here if you face DUI trouble, but you must take the step and make the call.