It is all too common for police officers to pull over vehicles they see weaving down the road, to find that the operator of the vehicle is intoxicated. A necessary component of obtaining a conviction for DUI or DWI is putting the operator behind the wheel. What kind of evidence can be used to accomplish that was explored recently by Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals in a case called Todd Harding v. State.
The Court’s opinion indicates that Baltimore City firefighters responded in the early morning hours to a call indicated that an accident had just happened and there were persons trapped in a vehicle. When they arrived, they found an old pickup truck which had clearly just jumped a curb, gone over a sidewalk and had its front end nudged into some bushes. Smoke was coming from the vehicle and the engine was still running. When they approached, they found Mr. Harding seated partly in the driver’s seat but slumped over onto the bench seat in the truck. They described him as initially unresponsive or sleeping, but he awoke when they touched him.
Thereafter, Mr. Harding got out of the truck, and was observed by police staggering up the sidewalk towards his nearby home. An officer testified that he would not admit to driving the vehicle, and his demeanor alternated between laughing and swearing. The officer smelled alcohol on him and arrested him after he refused to perform field sobriety tests, and later refused a breath test for alcohol. A jury ultimately convicted him of driving while under the influence, refusing the breath test, and driving on a suspended license.
The sole issue on appeal was whether there was sufficient evidence that he was the driver to take the case to the jury. The Court noted that “drive” for purposes of the DUI statute means “to drive, operate, or be in actual physical control of a vehicle,” and that this can be proven either by direct observation of a witness such as a police officer or by a permitted inference from the facts that the person had driven under the influence. In addition, the Court noted, under current law the fact that the driver refused to take a breath test is admissible evidence and supports finding consciousness of guilt.
The opinion goes on to add that the State did not even need evidence of refusal of the test, for the “physical evidence supporting a conclusion that they appellant had been driving the disabled truck was so bounteously sufficient that the permitted inference of the appellant’s consciousness of guilt was completely redundant.” This illustrates that there is more than one way to put the drunk driver behind the wheel.