Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Is a car accident alone evidence of intoxication?

1972 Illinois license plate.Image via Wikipedia

Does the mere fact that an automobile accident occurred warrant testing to determine if the driver was intoxicated? What if the driver of the vehicle left the scene before police arrived? What if witnesses to the crash claimed that the driver was acting erratic? What if the driver was the mayor's son? These are just a few of the questions that arose from a recent automobile accident that occurred in Elk Grove Village, Illinois. As described in this Daily Herald article, the accident occurred in the parking lot of an apartment complex. Witnesses claim that a pickup truck ran into stationary cars parked in the lot. The driver exited his vehicle and was shaking and talking to himself. He then got back into his vehicle, despite the urging of witnesses to remain at the scene, and drove off. His license plate remained behind, however, and responding police officers were able to determine that the vehicle belonged to Craig Johnson Jr., the son of the mayor. Officers then located him that same evening, brought him into the station, questioned him, and issued him a series of tickets for traffic violations, none of which were DUI-related. He was never given a breath test or asked to perform field sobriety tests. Some claimed that he received special treatment because he was the mayor's son. However, Don Ramsell, of our office, explained that Johnson did not necessarily receive preferential treatment:
Wheaton DUI and criminal defense attorney Donald Ramsell said that while police have a responsibility to investigate why a driver hit three parked vehicles, there's no cause to give a Breathalyzer or field sobriety test without an odor, impaired speech or some other indication of alcohol.

"It would be improper to administer a breath test if you have no outward sign of alcohol consumption," Ramsell said. "It's illegal to fish for a crime."

Still, "it's not like the parked car jumped in front of him," so Johnson should have been asked to provide a satisfactory explanation for the crash, such as bad weather or a sudden obstacle in the road, Ramsell said.

In Illinois, the odor of alcohol combined with an accident is enough probable cause for a breath test, Ramsell said.

So, an accident alone isn't sufficient evidence to support the inference of intoxication. And in this case, there were no allegations that the driver smelled of alcohol, so perhaps the police were justified in not administering a breath test or sobriety tests. A further review of police records would assist in making this determination, but as it stands, based on the facts known at this time, the actions of the police weren't necessarily suspect.

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