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Impactful Supreme Court Decisions

Top 20 U.S. Supreme
Court Decisions

The following represent the 20 cases decided by the United States Supreme Court which, in Mr. Taylor’s opinion, have had the greatest impact on the practice of drunk driving defense.

Top 20 U.S. Supreme Court Cases

The citations, facts and full majority opinions are set forth, along with any dissenting opinions.
  • Bell v. Burson
    For many years, government considered a driver’s license “a privilege — not a right”, and thus there were few effective remedies available to a driver who wished to contest a suspension. The U.S. Supreme Court changed that, recognizing that a license’s “continued possession may become essential in the pursuit of a livelihood”. Because of their value, then, they “are not to be taken away without that procedural due process required by the Fourteenth Amendment”. Note: Were it not for Bell, it is doubtful that the California DMV today would provide hearings to contest DUI license suspensions. See also, Mackey v. Montrym (1979) 443 U.S. 1, involving a license suspension for refusing to submit to a DUI breath test.
  • Benton v. Maryland
    In this case, the defendant was acquitted of larceny but convicted of burglary. successful on appeal, he was again charged with the burglary — and the larceny. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the Double Jeopardy Clause of the U.S. Constitution applies to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment, thereby barring them from subjecting a citizen to repeated prosecutions for the same conduct. Note: Drunk driving defendants are routinely charged with both (1) DUI and (2) driving with .08% blood-alcohol; although it has been argued that this, in itself, raises related issues of “multiple prosecution” for the same conduct, it could raise issues under Benton’s double jeopardy prohibition given the appropriate facts.
  • Berkemer v. McCarty
    The Supreme Court is called upon to apply Miranda to a drunk driving case: When is a suspect “in custody” for purposes of determing whether the Miranda warnings must be given before questioning? In Miranda, the Court had held that the warning must be given when the individual is “in custody” — “or otherwise deprived of his freedom of action in any significant way”. Clearly, a DUI suspect is not free to leave once he has been stopped and detained roadside — and certainly not when he is ordered to perform field sobriety tests. The Court, however, refused to provide any clear guidelines to the DUI stop/detention situation, seemingly recognizing a vague, undefined standard: “Either a rule that Miranda applies to all traffic stops or a rule that a suspect need not be advised of his rights until he is formally placed under arrest would provide a clearer, more easily administered line. However, each of these two alternatives has drawbacks that make it unacceptable…”
  • Blanton v. North Las Vegas

    Does a defendant charged with drunk driving have a right to a jury trial? Not necessarily, according to the U.S. Supreme Court. In Blanton, the Court held that a citizen has a right to a jury trial only for “serious offenses” — not for “petty offenses”. Basically, an offense punsihable by six months in jail or less is a “petty offense” — except in rare cases where additional statutory penalties indicate a legislative intent to consider the offense a “serious” one [such as license suspensions, fines, schools and ignition interlocks?]. Note: Today, a number of states, for example New Jersey, which punish fist offense DUIs with six months jail do not provide a right to jury trial. See also, Baldwin v. New York (1970) 399 U.S. 66.

  • Brady v. Maryland

    The landmark case requiring the prosecution to produce upon request any evidence that is “material” to the issue of guilt. Note: See also, Arizona v. Youngblood (1988) where the Court held that it is a violation of due process for the prosecution to destroy evidence “in bad faith” which although not “clearly exculpable” was nevertheless potentially useful.

  • California v. Trombetta

    Another in the line of Brady-Youngblood “discovery” decisions (see above), this dealt with a drunk driving case. Where a breath test is given, the sample is captured in a test chanber, analyzed and purged out of the machine and into the air; nothing is saved. Since there is relatively cheap technology available to save such breath samples for later re-analysis by the defense, does the purging of the sample and the failure to preserve it constitute willful destruction of potentially exculpatroy evidence? No, said the Supreme Court, reversing the California Supreme Court: the destruction was “not a calculated effort to circumvent the disclosure requirements established by Brady v. Maryland”, and, more importantly, the defnse failed to show that the breath sample would have had an “exculpatory value that was apparent before the evidence was destroyed [Note: How would a defendant possibly accomplish that?], and also be of such a nature that the defendant would be unable to obtain comparable evidence by other available means.” Note: These “other available means” referred to the right of a DUI arrestee giving a breath sample to request an additional blood sample at his expense — a right which the police rarely advise the arrestee he has.

  • Crawford v. Washington
    Very recent case. In a prosecution of a man accused of stabbing another man who raped his wife, the prosecution played a tape recording of the wife describing the stabbing. The defendant objected on the grounds that he could not cross-examine the woman, but the trial judge found the tape recording to be “reliable” since it had been taped by the police and admitted it for the jury to hear. The Supreme Court held in a 9-0 opinion that this is a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Sixth Amendment right to confrontation (“in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right…to be confronted with the witnesses against him.”). The decision specifically overruled a previous holding in Ohio v. Roberts where the Supreme Court had held that evidence could be introduced where the judge finds it to be “reliable”. The Court in Crawford decided that a judicial finding of “reliability” could not substitute for the right of confrontation, and that the Framers preferred the test of cross-examination to that of a judge’s finding of reliability. Note: This very recent decision is particularly important in DUI cases, where prosecutors judges have commonly permitted prosecutors to introduce police reports in lieu of the testimony of the police themselves.
  • Gideon v. Wainwright

    One of the cornerstones of our criminal justice system, this famous case dealt with a defendant charged with a felony who had no money and requested the trial judge to appoint legal counsel to defend him. The request was refused as state law provided for appointed attorneys only in capital cases, defendant had to defend himself at trial, and he was quickly convicted. Justice Black wrote the majority opinion, holding that the Sixth Amendment right to counsel applied not just to federal courts but to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment, and this “right to counsel” included the right to one even if one could not be afforded: “lawyers in criminal courts are necessitites, not luxuries. The right of one charged with crime to counsel may not be deemed fundamental and essential to fair trials in some countries, but it is in ours.”

  • Kumho Tire v. Carmichae
    Federal Rules of Evidence 702 permits an expert to give his opinion “if scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will assist the trier of fact…” In Kumho, the trial judge excluded expert opinion testimony as to tire design because he found it unreliable. The issue on appeal was: Does Rule 702 apply only to “scientific” matters? Held, a trial judge’s “gatekeeping” function is not limited by 702 to scientific matters, but applies to all expert testimony. Note: Since most states model their Evidence Codes after the Federal Rules, this decision was influential in how state courts would would limit expert testimony — including in drunk driving cases, where “expert” testimony (such as by the police officer) on such non-scientific matters as “field sobriety tests” is common. See also, Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals (1993) 509 U.S. 579.
  • Mapp v. Ohio
    Landmark case in which the U.S. Suptreme Court established the “Exclusionary Rule” by holding that “all evidence obtained by searches and seizures in violation of the Constitution is, by [the Fourth Amendment], inadmissible in a state court.” Note: In a DUI case, for example, the remedy for an officer stopping, detaining or arresting a suspect without sufficient probable cause would be suppression of all subsequently-obtained evidence: observations of appearance and behavior, field sobriety tests, breath test results, etc. See also, Wong Sun v. United States (1963) 371 U.S. 471.
  • Michigan v. Sitz
    Do roadside sobriety checkpoints violate the 4th Amendment protection from being stopped/detained without probable cause that he may be engaged in illegal conduct? In a much-criticized 6-3 decision, the Court overlooked the Constitution, focusing instead on the drunk driving problem: “No one can seriously dispute the magnitude of the drunken driving problem or the States’ interest in eradicating it….the weight bearing on the other scale—the measure of the intrusion on motorists stopped briefly at sobriety checkpoints—is slight.” Note: A few states (Michigan, for example, but not California) have continued to prohibit DUI checkpoints by relying upon their own state constitutions.
  • Miranda v. Arizona
    The landmark case in which the Court required that any “custodial interrogation” (questioning after arrest) must be preceded by the now-famous “Miranda warning” — including the right to remain silent and the right to have counsel present. Failure to so advise will result in suppression of any statements made in reply to such post-arrest questions. Note: In DUI cases, most questioning usually takes place during the field investigation — that is, non-custodial interrogation; it is not uncommon, however, for the police to continue asking questions in the police car or back at the police station during breath testing.
  • Montana v. Kurth Ranch
    Defendant was both tried for selling marijuana — and then charged civilly for a failure to pay a tax on that marijuana. The Supreme Court held that it was a violation of the Constitutional prohibition against Double Jeopardy: The fact that one proceeding was criminal and the other civil did not matter, the Court said, as long as they both involved the same offense and both were intended as punishment. Note: This case has repeatedly been cited in DUI cases as authority for the proposition that the State cannot both criminally prosecute for driving with over .08% blood alcohol and civilly suspend the individual’s driver’s license for the same offense. Although there have been federal court decisions taking this position, to date state courts have not accepted this reasoning and the U.S. Supreme Court has not addressed the issue in a drunk driving context. See also, U.S. v. Halper (1989), 490 U.S. 435.
  • Morisette v. United States
    Involving a theft where the intent to steal was legally presumed from the conduct of removing the property, this decision established that conclusive presumptions are a violation of the presumption of innocence and takes away from the jury the function of facutally determining the elements of the offense. Presumptions pop up constantly in DUI cases today: defendants are presumed guilty if their blood-alcohol was over .08%; the blood-alcohol level at the time of testing is presumed to be the same at the time of driving if taken within three hours (despite scientific evidence and common sense to the contrary). In each situation, however, the presumption is rebuttable — that is, the jury can disregard it in view of other evidence. Note: Were it not for Morisette, the government would undoubtedly make these presumptions conclusive — that is, the jury must follow the legal presumption even if the evidence clearly contradicts it.
  • Old Chief v. United States
    Defendant was charged with possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. Fearful that evidence of the prior felony conviction would prejudice the jury on the present case, defendant offered to admit to the fact of the prior felony so that evidence of the nature or facts of the crime would not be necessary. The prosecution refused, saying that it could prove the prior conviction if it so chose, and offered the facts of the prior crime. Held: the judge abuses his discretion in permitting evidence of the prior conviction where the nature of the current criminal charge raises a risk of a verdict tainted by evidence of that conviction. Note: This is a critical issue in drunk driving cases where a defendant is accused of DUI with prior convictions: evidence of the priors (“If he did it once…”) almost guarantees a conviction.
  • Pennsylvania v. Muniz
    After his arrest, a drunk driving suspect was given field sobriety tests at the police station. Some of these included tests of mental acuity, such as “Do you know what the date was of your sixth birthday?”. The Supreme Court held that this constituted testimonial response to custodial interrogation and, since a Miranda warning had not been given, was inadmissible in trial. The court distinguished between questioning to determine the manner of speech (slurred) and the content (what was said) — that is, what was said rather than how it was said. Note: Applying Muniz to other DUI cases, post-arrest questions like “What time is it? Where are you?” and “divided attention” field sobriety tests (“Stand at attention with your eyes closed and tell me when 30 seconds have passed”) should be similarly inadmissible without Miranda warnings.
  • Rochin v. California
    Suspect swallowed drugs to get rid of evidence, whereupon police hit him and jumped on his stomach to make him throw up the drugs; at the hospital a physician forced an emetic through a tube into his stomach. Held, this conduct violated defendant’s 14th Amendment right to Due Process. “Due Process” is a vague term, but it prohibited “conduct that shocks the conscience.” Note: This is an important case in the drunk driving arena, as it is not uncommon practice for police to use violent means to obtain a blood sample from a resisting DUI arrestee.
  • Schmerber v. California
    At officer’s request and over objection, blood was withdrawn from a DUI arrestee while he was being treated at a hospital for injuries from an accident. Issue: Did evidence of the blood test results violate the defendant’s 5th Amendment privielege against self-incrimination? Held, no: the privilege applies only to oral and written communication or testimony, not to physical evidence, and blood tests are not due process violations if taken under humane and medically accepted circumstances.
  • South Dakota v. Neville
    If a DUI suspect refuses to submit to breath or blood alcohol testing, is it a violation of the 5th Amendment privilege against self-incrimination to use that refusal as evidence against him in trial? After the South Dakota Supreme Court held that it was a violation and thus inadmissible, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed, saying that a refusal was a matter of free choice, not compulsive. Note: The South Dakota Supreme Court later held that if not a violation of the U.S. Constitution, then evidence of refusals was a violation of the South Dakota Constitution — and again reversed the conviction.
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