California Supreme Court DUI Ruling: Coffey v. Shiomoto

Last month, a California Supreme Court case made it more difficult to escape a DUI charge. The California Supreme Court ruled that the Department of Motor Vehicles is now able to consider circumstantial evidence (i.e. swerving in and out of lanes, failing field sobriety tests) to prove a driver was impaired behind the wheel. This decision has provided wiggle room for the DMV to suspend drivers’ licenses when a breathalyzer or blood test determines a driver’s blood alcohol level is close to the legal limit or a test result is inconclusive. The Coffey decision makes it more difficult for those drivers who are subjected to sobriety tests with borderline results to prove that they were not driving while impaired. This ruling could cause a spike in DUI convictions.

The facts of the case are as follows: Ashley Coffey was arrested in November of 2011 for driving under the influence of alcohol, when an officer observed her swerving on the freeway. The officer administered field sobriety tests, which Coffey failed. Approximately one hour after Coffey was pulled over; her blood-alcohol level was measured at 0.08 percent. Three minutes later she was given another test, which measured 0.09 percent. Later still, Coffey was given a blood test which measured 0.095 percent. Coffey had an expert testify on her behalf at an administrative hearing and at trial contesting the suspension of her driver’s license. The expert testified that her blood-alcohol content was rising at the time of the breathalyzer and blood tests, which suggested that her blood-alcohol level was below the legal limit at the time she was driving. This expert testimony was disregarded by both the DMV and the trial court.

Under California law, prior to this decision, the 0.08 blood-alcohol level creates a rebuttable presumption that the driver was impaired within three hours after driving. A defendant can rebut the presumption by presenting evidence negating the fact that the driver was impaired. Coffey tried to rebut the presumption that she was impaired, but was unsuccessful. The California Supreme Court concluded that “the Evidence Code says nothing about the quality of the evidence…only that, once the opponent introduces evidence of a fact negating the presumption, the [judge] has to weigh the inferences arising from the facts that gave rise to the presumption against the contrary evidence and resolve the conflict.” This essentially means that when a defendant presents evidence to rebut the presumption, the DMV is allowed to rely on evidence other than breathalyzer or blood tests to prove that a defendant’s blood-alcohol level was above the legal limit while driving.

The Court held that circumstantial evidence is relevant and admissible in a DUI hearing. The judge is the one who determines whether the evidence is credible. Further, the court said that prior case law that has held circumstantial evidence coupled with blood-alcohol level tests can be combined to prove that a driver was driving drunk. Though the court cautioned on the potential abuse of this ruling, it is not unlikely that it will make the defense of a DUI charge more difficult. This ruling allows much wider discretion for DMV hearing officers to penalize those driving legally below the limit.

If you have been charged with a DUI, the Law Offices of Sean F. Leslie can help. We have years of experience in reducing the charges of DUI clients. Contact us today for a consultation.