Oregon Supreme Court upheld drivers’ rights in DUI case

| Apr 8, 2020 | Drunk Driving |

If you drive south of Portland for about an hour, you will arrive in Salem. Oregon’s capital city is home to Sen. Peter Courtney, who recently proposed a measure to close what he believes is a loophole in state law. Senate Bill 1503 would, in effect, negate an Oregon Supreme Court ruling made late last year in the case of John Hedgpeth.

While his is not a household name, Mr. Hedgpeth’s case has done more to protect the rights of Oregon residents than many much more famous people.

Back in 2014, Hedgpeth was pulled over for operating a motorcycle without a helmet. During the stop, a police officer came to believe that Hedgpeth was under the influence of alcohol and he was arrested for DUI.

At trial, prosecutors presented Breathalyzer evidence that they said showed that Hedgpeth’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) was at .09 percent two hours after the initial traffic stop. (Note: Oregon’s legal threshold is a BAC of .08 percent.) He was then convicted of DUI.

However, he and his criminal defense attorney appealed the conviction, arguing that the Breathalyzer results showed that he exceeded the legal threshold hours after the traffic stop, but did not show that he was above the legal limit at the time he was pulled over.

Hedgpeth argued that in those two hours between the initial stop and the time of the Breathalyzer test, his body had time to absorb alcohol he had consumed earlier and that the delay allowed his BAC to rise and exceed the legal limit. The appellate court accepted his argument and overturned the DUI conviction.

The state then filed with the Oregon Supreme Court, arguing that it is “common knowledge” that alcohol dissipates in the body over time and that this “common knowledge” permits a jury or judge to reasonably infer that the defendant had indeed driven with a BAC above the legal limit. After all, the defendant had not consumed alcohol after the initial stop, and if alcohol dissipates over time, there is no reason to believe his  BAC had not at least been .09 percent when he was pulled over.

The Oregon Supreme Court upheld the appeals court, deciding that more evidence than “common knowledge” about alcohol dissipation was needed to convict the defendant of drunk driving. The court noted that state legislatures elsewhere have enacted laws that specifically make it illegal to have a BAC above the legal limit two hours after a traffic stop. The court noted that the Oregon legislature can likewise create such a law here if it desires.

The bill was sent to committee early last month.

If you have been charged with DUI under similar circumstances, contact an experienced Portland criminal defense lawyer who knows how to effectively fight for your rights and freedom at trial or on appeal.