DUI Accident Cases

Accidents do happen.  Accidents that evolve into driving under the influence (DUI) cases present their own special problems. What we're about to do is drill a bit deeper than your average defense attorney website.  The reason is, this issue comes up so often that it really deserves its own brief analysis.   Basically, we're going to look at a common problem with proving a DUI accident case.  

DUI accident cases present special problems of proof regarding who was the driver of the crashed vehicle.  After all, just because the car is registered to you doesn't mean you're driving it.  The police understand the problems of proof here, so they often illicit a defendant's confession to driving the vehicle.  But when the police have a confession to driving, that doesn't solve their problems, it only marks the beginning.

Let's start with the basics.  In order to prove DUI, the State must prove that a defendant is operating a vehicle while under the influence.  Often, the police show up to the scene of an accident where no one is driving anymore.  Everyone is out of their cars, standing around.  The police don't see anything, and the other driver may not of seen who was behind the wheel of the car that hit them.

THE CORPUS DELICTI RULE

Once there's a confession to driving on a DUI accident case, it's important for a criminal defense attorney to make the prosecutor prove that a crime was committed before the confession can be can be admitted into evidence.  In legalese, we would say that the prosecutor has a "corpus delicti" issue on accident cases.  This fancy word literally means "the body of the crime", and courts have held that the State must establish that a crime was committed before a defendant's statement can be admitted.  Here are some examples of how the corpus delicti rule plays out in DUI accident cases.

Again, we're talking about this because it can be difficult for the state to prove what happened in an accident case that ends up with charges for driving under the influence.  For DUI accident cases, the "corpus delicti" rule lays out the type of evidence necessary to place a defendant behind the wheel of a car that was involved in an accident before the state can introduce a defendant's admission that he was the driver.  A good example of this is found in State v. Hepburn, 460 So.2d 422 (Fla. 5th DCA 1984), where Hepburn was charged with three counts of DUI causing personal injury and leaving the scene of an accident involving injury. 

Hepburn admitted to being the driver, but the defense moved to suppress the admission because "there were no eyewitnesses to the accident and since the pedestrians did not know what hit them, there is no evidence which places [Hepburn] behind the wheel of the automobile which struck the pedestrians at the time the accident occurred." 460 So.2d at 426.  The court suppressed the statement by the driver, even though the state proved that the car was registered in the name of the defendant's ex-husband the the defendant was in possession of the car on the day after the accident.

Another prime example of this is State of Florida v. Colorado, 890 So.2d 468 (Fla. 2nd CA 2004), in which defendant Colorado was charged with DUI manslaughter after confessing to driving a car, with a .18 BAL, and causing an accident which killed his passenger.  No witnesses saw Colorado driving, the car was not registered to Colorado, nor was there any physical evidence placing him behind the wheel.  Colorado's attorney moved to suppress the admission, reasoning that the corpus delicti rule required the state to present independent proof of the elements before Colorado's admission could be introduced. 

The court granted the suppression, leaving the state with absolutely no case.    Of course, the state appealed this decision up to the Second District Court of Appeals, and that court upheld the suppression of the admission, holding that, with no evidence placing Colorado behind the wheel, the "corpus delicti rule prevents [the state] from relying solely on Colorado's admission to establish this critical element". Id. 

The corpus delicti rule is not popular with judges, as noted in the Colorado case concurring opinion: "I concur in this opinion because the result is required by the controlling precedent in Florida.  I share Justice Shaw's concern, however, that the corpus delicti rule, as it is used to limit the admissibility of confessions and admissions, may be a questionable doctrine". Id.  
  
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