A ruling was made earlier this week by the Georgia Supreme Court that an alleged drunken driver’s refusal to provide a breath test cannot be used as evidence in court may affect over a dozen pending DUI cases in Athens.
Read more: DUI Lawyer in Athens, GA
As reported in The Athens Banner-Herald, the high court unanimously agreed in the Monday ruling that offering evidence of a suspect’s refusal to take a breath test during a court hearing violates the Georgia Constitution’s protection against self-incrimination.
Athens-Clarke County Solicitor General C.R. Chisholm said that breath test results were not always necessary for successful prosecution. He also said that he and his staff will be reviewing an estimated 100 pending DUI cases before proceeding in court.
“We will decide on how to further prosecute each case based on the evidence in each case,” he said.
One of those cases is that of Andrea Marie Elliott, whose refusal to take a breath test during a traffic stop in Athens in August of 2015 formed the basis of the Supreme Court ruling.
Elliott was a 26-year-old Athens resident when her Hummer was stopped by an officer on Barnett Shoals Road who witnessed her tailgating another vehicle. After following the Hummer the officer saw the vehicle veer from its lane and run a red light, according to a police report.
The officer also noted in his report that he smelled “a very strong odor” of alcohol on her breath and that her speech was slurred.
The woman also agreed to submit to some field sobriety tests including tracking her eye movements and pupil size, which the officer claimed she failed. These field sobriety tests are claimed to allow officers to determine if it is safe for a person to drive. In practice, field sobriety testing is used to gather evidence against a driver and to justify an officer’s arrest decision.
When she was asked to take a breath test, Elliott declined because “she indicated that (the test) was voluntary and she had something to drink,” according to the police report.
Elliot was subsequently detained and charged with DUI, failure to obey a traffic control device, following another vehicle too closely, failure to maintain lane and driving while her license was suspended, according to the report.
As of Tuesday, Elliott’s case was still pending in Athens-Clarke County State Court.
“We will be discussing potential resolutions with her attorney,” the solicitor general said.
Chisholm said the Elliott opinion will not drastically change how police follow procedures.
“Our local law enforcement will continue to enforce the DUI laws here in Athens-Clarke County,” he said. “The only difference will be that instead of reading implied consent to request a state administered breath test, as has been the practice in most DUI cases, officers will now read implied consent to request a blood test in all DUI cases.”
Upon a person’s refusal to provide a blood sample, police could request search warrants that compel suspected offenders to cooperate. E-warrants allow judges to remotely sign search warrants while an alleged offender is being detained.
Officers will still continue to use their observations of an alleged offender’s appearance and behavior and look for open containers of alcohol to establish probable cause for a DUI arrest. They can also present evidence such as a driver’s erratic behavior, odor of alcohol, slurred speech or other indications of impairment.
Chisholm said the Elliot opinion does not apply to standardized field sobriety testing, where suspected offenders voluntarily display their ability to stand on one leg, walk a straight line and count backwards, among other things.
“Officers will gather evidence to establish probable cause just as they have always done,” Chisholm said.
“Due to the (Supreme Court) ruling, the DUI evidence collection process could take longer, but we will continue to enforce drunk or impaired driving laws,” Athens-Clarke County Police Chief Cleveland Spruill said Tuesday. “The ruling means that it might take more time for the officer to complete a DUI investigation, but the ACCPD will still look for and arrest drunk or impaired drivers.”
The Elliot decision is a unanimous holding supporting the rights of Georgians against compulsory self incrimination. It is an important ruling for liberty and reaffirms Georgia’s long standing constitutional respect for the right of citizens to be free from the compulsion to give evidence against themselves. It is a crucial restraint of government power.
The effect of the Elliot decision will reach into other areas of law and should serve to advance the cause of liberty in our State.