The Mn Criminal Defense, Personal Injury & Family Law Blog
What Kind of DWI Defense Will a Lawyer Provide in Hutchinson?
June 1, 2021
In criminal court, McLeod County prosecutors must establish every element beyond a reasonable doubt for DWI defense. Under Minnesota law, a “reasonable doubt” is anything beyond “a fanciful or capricious doubt.” For example, the defendant’s doppelganger might have committed a crime, but that argument is capricious and fanciful. Instead, the doubt must be based on “reason and common sense.”
The “reason and common sense” line, which many states use, does little to adequately explain this rather difficult concept. Indeed, one court remarked that this description is like saying a white horse is a horse than is white.
In many ways, the debate over the precise meaning of this phrase is beside the point. The bottom line is that a Hutchinson DWI lawyer need not “prove” anything. Creating a reasonable doubt is enough. If even one juror has such a doubt, the defendant is not guilty as a matter of law. Furthermore, if the state’s evidence is weak, many prosecutors are willing to reduce charges to something like reckless driving. This offense is also a misdemeanor, but it does not have the same collateral consequences as DWI.
Possible Penalties of DWI in Hutchinson MN
Before we look at some types of DWI defense, let’s examine what is at stake in a DWI prosecution. Precise penalties vary, mostly depending on the defendant’s criminal record and the facts of the case. But the Big Three are always court supervision, aggravated circumstances, and driving privileges.
Typically, court supervision does not mean incarceration, unless the defendant has two or more prior DWIs. Court supervision, or probation, usually lasts around a year. During this time, defendants must comply with numerous conditions. The biggest ones are usually:
Reporting Regularly: Generally, probationers must personally report to probation officers at least once a month. These appointments are not like doctors’ appointments. Defendants cannot decide when to meet their probation officers and they cannot cancel if their kids get sick.
Avoiding Additional Legal Problems: Violation of this condition prompts most of the motions to revoke probation that Hutchinson DWI lawyers deal with. Anything more serious than a speeding ticket could mean jail time.
Obeying Court Orders: Probation usually involves paying a fine, performing community service, and jumping through other hoops. Usually, only a steadfast and stubborn refusal to comply triggers a motion to revoke probation.
If the judge finds that the allegations in the motion to revoke probation are true, one of several things could happen. The judge could cancel probation and send the defendant to jail. More than likely, however, a motion to revoke usually means a longer period of probation or a few days in jail as a condition of reinstatement.
Aggravating circumstances in a DWI include prior drunk driving convictions, open container of alcohol in the passenger area, a child passenger under 16, and a collision. McLeod County prosecutors are notoriously aggressive in this area. If there is a hint that aggravated DWI charges might hold up in court, prosecutors usually tack on additional charges.
Refusal to provide a chemical sample is another example of an aggravating circumstance. You have the right to refuse to provide a sample, but this right is not free. The refusal is admissible in court. Most jurors assume people refuse because they have something to hide. A good Hutchinson DWI lawyer can blunt that presumption. For example, some people refuse because they are nervous or don’t trust government tests.
Refusal also impacts driving privileges. DWI usually means drivers’ license suspension, or at least drivers’ license limitation. The possibilities in this area are more severe in refusal cases.
The Venue Defense in Hutchinson DWI Cases
In the movies and TV shows, fleeing suspects often say something like “If we cross the state line, the police cannot touch us.” That’s not entirely true, but it is partially accurate, because of the venue rule.
Venue is Legalese for the jurisdiction where the state brings criminal charges. McLeod County prosecutors only have authority over crimes which occur in McLeod County. The boundary lines are not always easy to determine. For example, Cedar Mills is partially in Meeker County and partially in McLeod County.
Things get really confusing when officers spot DWI suspects in one county and pull them over in another county. Technically, the state could bring charges in either county. But there are territoriality issues. To return to the previous example, the Meeker County Sheriff’s office usually does not want to send its deputies all the way to Hutchinson to testify in someone else’s criminal case.
Venue mistakes often give attorneys the leverage they need to successfully mount a DWI defense. If bureaucrats file charges in the wrong county, the judge must dismiss the case. Prosecutors can refile the charges in another county, but many times, they will agree to a favorable plea bargain rather than go to all that trouble. Furthermore, the delay benefits a Hutchinson DWI lawyer. Over time, memories fade and physical evidence disappears.
Lack of Reasonable Suspicion for the DWI Stop
Venue is a procedural DWI defense, as is lack of reasonable suspicion and lack of probable cause for the arrest. Prosecutors can work around the venue defense, if they are so inclined, but they cannot work around the next two procedural defenses. Lawyers cannot turn back the clock and erase police officer mistakes in these areas.
In 2020 and 2021, there were some high-profile police stops in Minnesota which involved little evidence of wrongdoing. Some people even claimed these stops were pretext detentions. They contend that officers essentially detained these individuals because they didn’t look right.
Legally, such stops almost always hold up in court. Officers only need reasonable suspicion, which is essentially an evidence-based hunch. Furthermore, the stop’s purpose is illegal. Usually, when officers pull over DWI suspects, they care almost nothing about the expired sticker or other infraction which prompted the stop. But the stop is still legal.
Because of this low standard of evidence, it’s very difficult for a Hutchinson DWI lawyer to invalidate a stop. Probable cause for the arrest, however, is a different story.
Preliminary Evidence of Impairment in Hutchinson
Technically, this intermediate step is not a procedural DWI defense. Officers do not need evidence of impairment to go to the next step. Such evidence usually includes:
An unwise answer to the dreaded “Have you been drinking” question, or
Physical symptoms, such as bloodshot eyes, slurred speech, slow reflexes, or unsteady balance.
However, this step is important for many jurors. If an officer pulls over a defendant and immediately assumes s/he is probably drunk, some jurors smell something fishy. That’s especially true if the officer had staked out a bar or was actively looking for DWIs as part of a concerted enforcement effort.
Once upon a time, efforts to erode police officer credibility in this way rarely worked and usually backfired. Most people highly esteemed police officers. Cops got free pancakes at Denny’s. Now, officers pay for their own pancakes. So, more jurors are willing to consider an argument that the officer railroaded the defendant. Public confidence in law enforcement officers recently hit an all-time low.
Probable Cause for the Arrest
This area is mandatory. Police must have probable cause to arrest suspects. In most cases, “probable cause” is an even more vague standard than beyond a reasonable doubt. But in the DWI context, the law is more certain.
Officers usually have probable cause to arrest suspects if they perform poorly on the field sobriety tests. In Minnesota, there are four such tests:
Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus: For the DWI eye test, suspects must track moving objects with their eyes without moving their heads. This test reliably reveals nystagmus, a condition also known as lazy eye. The problem is that intoxication is not the only cause of nystagmus. In fact, it’s not even the leading cause of it.
Walk and Turn: Suspects must walk a straight line heel to toe forwards and backwards. This test is very difficult to successfully perform if the suspect is wearing anything other than athletic shoes. Furthermore, it’s much harder to walk an imaginary line than an actual line.
One-Leg Stand: People with any mobility impairment whatsoever usually cannot possibly stand on one foot for fifteen or twenty seconds. Additionally, officers usually have suspects perform this test near the end, when they are physically and mentally fatigued.
Portable Breathalyzer: This gadget’s specific flaws, or at least some of them, are discussed below. For now, we’ll just say that the portable Breathalyzers police officers carry are even more inaccurate than the bigger ones at the police station.
Officers always swear that the defendant “failed” these tests, even if the failure was a technicality, like taking too many heel-to-toe steps. Since the standard of evidence is so low, most McLeod County judges take officers at their word. The field sobriety test flaws are more important at trial. Jurors decide for themselves, based on the evidence and not based on a police officer’s opinion, whether defendants passed or failed the tests.
However, sometimes this evidence is unavailable. People sometimes assert their Fifth Amendment rights and refuse to perform these tests. Other times, hurried officers skip right to the good part and immediately cuff the defendant.
In these situations, prosecutors must rely on the reasonable suspicion evidence, such as bloodshot eyes, mentioned above. This evidence usually proves consumption. But it does little or nothing to prove intoxication.
Non-Intoxication DWI Defense in Hutchinson, MN
Not all cases involve procedural defenses, but many do. So, a Hutchinson DWI lawyer must pay close attention to the details. This same diligence is necessary with regard to non-intoxication defenses. Frequently, intoxication is the only issue in a DWI trial, but this offense has other elements as well. Prosecutors must prove all elements of the offense, and not just one of them, beyond a reasonable doubt. Some possible non-intoxication DWI defenses include:
Public Place: It is not illegal to operate a motor vehicle while intoxicated if the vehicle was on private property at the time. Shopping mall parking lots are not public places, even if they have street names and traffic control signals. The space in front of a private dwelling, like the curb next to a driveway, is in a grey area.
“Wheeling” the Defendant: This defense often comes up in DWI-collision cases. Generally, when officers arrive on the scene, the defendant has exited the vehicle. Therefore, officers cannot testify that the defendant was driving. To prove this point, prosecutors must call another witness. Such a witness may or may not be available.
Operating the Vehicle: On a related note, the defendant must have been operating the vehicle at the time. Legally, a person sitting in a motionless car is usually operating the vehicle, even if the person is asleep or unconscious. That’s assuming the vehicle was driveable at the time.
How does reasonable doubt work in these defenses? Public place arguments are usually all or nothing. But the other two are more subjective. If a vehicle had more than one occupant, it’s very difficult to conclusively prove who was driving the car. Or, if a prosecutor fails to prove the car had gas and was in good working order, the state has arguably not established the “operating” element.
Intoxication Defenses in Hutchinson, MN
Even if these two areas are not issues in a DWI case, intoxication, or lack thereof, is usually a question. Scientifically, alcohol blood tests are much more accurate than breath tests. But in 2016’s Birchfield v. North Dakota, the Supreme Court ruled that officers needed search warrants to perform blood draws. So, officers normally rely on flawed Breathalyzer tests. Some specific issues include:
Ketone Levels: Diabetics, smokers, and some other people have elevated ketone levels in their bodies. These particles basically transform sugar into energy. Breathalyzers register ketone particles as ethanol. So, the BAC estimate might be artificially high. In borderline cases, like a .08 or .09, jurors could easily have a reasonable doubt as to the result’s accuracy.
Mouth Alcohol: If the defendant burped or vomited prior to the test, ethanol particles from the stomach flood the mouth and skew the test result. Many officers do not watch defendants prior to the test, so there’s no way of knowing if mouth alcohol contributed to the result.
Recent Consumption: On a similar note, alcohol does not pass from the stomach to the blood. Instead, it goes from the stomach to the liver and then to the blood. So, if the defendant had anything to drink in the preceding hour, that alcohol has not yet entered the bloodstream.
To drive home these flaws with the jury, many Hutchinson DWI lawyers point out that the modern Breathalyzer is essentially the same gadget as the 1920s Drunk-O-Meter.
Connect with an Experienced Hutchinson DWI Lawyer
Attention to detail is often the key to creating reasonable doubt. For a free consultation with an experienced Hutchinson DWI lawyer, contact Carlson & Jones, P.A. Home and jail visits are available.
This article was originally published on Feb 21, 2020 and updated on June 01, 2021.