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Supreme Court Affirms DUI Conviction

In State of Vermont v. Gilles Richard, 2016 VT 75 (July 29, 2016), the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed Defendant’s conviction for driving under the influence.

Issue: In August 2014, a Vermont State Police trooper noticed Defendant driving erratically, turned on his lights, and signaled for Defendant to stop. Instead of stopping, Defendant drove to his home and exited his car, ignoring the trooper’s request that he stay by the car and not go into the house. When the trooper brought Defendant back to the police cruiser, he noticed that Defendant’s speech was slurred and that his breath smelled like he had been drinking. The trooper did not conduct a field sobriety test or a blood alcohol test before arresting Defendant and bringing him back to the police barracks. Defendant was ultimately charged with DUI, and moved to suppress the evidence following his arrest, arguing that the arrest was without probable cause. He also moved to suppress his breath test results, arguing that the trooper had deterred him from going to the hospital for an independent test by telling him that the hospital would not conduct the test without Defendant paying for the test first. The trial court did not suppress the evidence following from his arrest, nor did it suppress the breath test results. Defendant appealed.

Holding: The Supreme Court affirmed Defendant’s DUI conviction, finding that the three contested factual findings were “not clearly erroneous,” given that the evidence supported them. Defendant also argued that his arrest was not supported by probable cause, pointing to the fact that the trooper should not have drawn conclusions about his speech and that the trooper did not conduct a breath test or a field sobriety test before arresting Defendant. The Court found that there was probable cause – the trooper had experience with drunk drivers, and knew that slurred speech is “objectively indicative of intoxication.” Further, while a preliminary breath test or field sobriety test might be helpful to establish probable cause, neither test is necessary to establish probable cause if there is other evidence indicating that a defendant is intoxicated. With regard to Defendant’s argument that the trooper deterred him from getting an independent blood alcohol test, the Court found that Defendant did not offer evidence to counter the trooper’s statements. The relevant statute, 23 V.S.A. §1202(d)(4), requires troopers to tell defendants that independent blood alcohol tests are conducted at defendants’ own expense, and the trooper in this case did just that. Finally, defendant argued that he should have been released after the breath test – because he was placed into custody instead, he felt that his breath test should not have been admitted as evidence. The Court found that that the trooper detained Defendant as an “incapacitated person” rather than as an “arrested person” and that his detention did not violate his constitutional rights. Even if it had, though, the Court noted that there would have been no connection between the wrongful detention and suppressing the breath test results.

Concurrence: Justice Skoglund concurred, agreeing with the majority’s legal analysis, but voicing a separate concern as to the majority’s interpretation of the incapacitated person statutes. Justice Skoglund noted that, under the definition in the incapacitated person statute, Defendant was not incapacitated. The screener claimed that Defendant was incapacitated after “looking in his eyes,” which does not provide any evidence of mental confusion or a need to assure Defendant’s safety as required by the statute.

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