Late this past summer as well as last month I attended 2 annual 3 day seminars and conference dedicated to trial skills and techniques, as well as advanced understanding and challenging various types of advanced evidence issues in DUI cases.
The first of these two was presented by The National College Of DUI Defense, an organization I have been a General Member of since 2005. The conference was held at Harvard Law School and keynote speaker was F.Lee. Bailey. College General Members represent the most experienced DUI defense attorneys in the country and are the backbone of the college—capable, experienced attorneys who dedicate a portion of their practice to the defense of DUI cases throughout the country. Training always embraces the most innovative and creative methods of DUI defense as well as polishing the corner stone of trial work like cross-examination.
The second seminar was and advance evidence seminar. The previous year I attended this same conference, but also lead a specialized breakout session on roadside sobriety tests. These training sessions are important because as a DUI defense attorney, my client's freedom and driving privilege (to name only 2) depends on my skills and knowledge that are accumulated and practiced to the point where they are instinct and second nature. Spending time with other attorneys from around the nation who have likewise dedicated their legal careers and practices to the defense of citizens accused of DUI creates a scholastic environment where we are all dedicated to the same cause, and share our success and failure in the courtroom. Believe it or not, defense attorneys, secure less Not Guilty verdicts than Guilty verdicts, but it is usually the cases we fight hard and lose that are our best teaching aids.
This annual conference allows a lawyer student to choose their own schedule of lectures and breakout sessions so that the lawyer can sharpen their skills, or gain a greater understanding of procedures, protocols, and highly technical areas of science that DUI prosecutions are steeped in. The program is also designed to allow DUI defense lawyers to practice in front of other lawyers and thereby receive constructive criticism and share ideas and concepts that enhance the lawyer's skill set.
At this year's program, I choose to revisit blood testing and the Drug Recognition Evaluation (DRE) protocol for Drug based DUI prosecutions.
The science of blood testing is “regulated” by national scientific standards, but even so, one should never underestimate the power of human error and the fallibility of machines that are programmed by the human hand. Blood testing uses Headspace Gas Chromatography. This is a type of testing where a vial of blood is shaken and mixed for a period of time and then the blood itself is NOT actually tested. Rather, what is tested is the airspace above the blood level (the “Headspace”) as it is sealed in a “vacutainer” tube. The tube is a vacuum sealed space with suction helping to fill the tube from the subject's body when blood is drawn. To analyze and test the head space above the blood after it has been shaken, the machine doing the analysis injects a small needle into the top of the soft rubber tube (stopper) and a small bit of gas is sucked out and then ran through a machine. The gas substance is injected into another know gas and then forced to travel through a tubular line where at the end of this journey the substance is quickly burned up in an actual flame. It is this end process that results in the analysis of the substance and the alcohol concentration.
This is a very rudimentary description of the process, but suffice it say, most do not understand that the blood content itself is NEVER actually tested. Furthermore, many do not realize that the machine is used to test all sorts of other fluids and compounds and the cross contamination potential is huge. Add to that fact that the machine is an automated one and most times the analysis is done without human oversight. As a result of these and other issues, a complete understanding of the process is necessary to adequately challenge, not only the end result, but the process itself, because what is generated is a number. What is presented is nothing more than a number to which the prosecution points to as guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. However, in Washington State, and most other States, the accuracy and the reliability of that final number is always a critical issues that must be addressed in arriving at a final decision.
While this overview is not intended to be comprehensive, but instead an brief review of a complicated process fraught with potential error and to show that the net result of spending time learning from other attorney’s who excel in this and other scientific areas where it intersects with the law, benefits not only future clients, but helps a defense attorney explain to a jury the limitations of the testing utilized in any given case.
The difference between exposing error by pulling back the curtain on pseudo-scientific, and unreliable evidence can mean the difference between lockup or liberty. While this may seem dramatic, consider how many recent cases there have been where legitimate science has exonerated previously convicted persons who were convicted by the use of evidence that was of poor quality, and was either misunderstood, or presented as infallible, and was not challenged by an advocate with adequate knowledge? The fact that the charge of DUI is “unpopular” is no reason to allow less than adequate evidence to untested, unscrutinized, and unchallenged if it fails to be collected and analyzed properly.
The other practice area i choose to spend more time on was the Drug Recognition Program, or DRE. This is an area of law that is NOT based upon science, NOR supported by rigorous peer-reviewed research, NOR endorsed by any agencies other than those law enforcement agencies that promote the circular reasoning of: “the program works because we say it works.”
While I have previously completed a 16-hour course on the DRE program overview, it had been a while since I represented a citizen accused of a Drug-DUI, so a close review of the materials presented, and the companion workshops where a critique of courtroom skills was done was a welcome review and challenge.
The DRE program is a book unto itself and a short blog will not adequately capture the program, but from a brief overview perspective, the program starts with ruling out alcohol suspected impairment and then runs a subject through a series of “sobriety” tests that are not related to drug impairment. This entails, a physical examination that requires monitoring of blood pressure, physical inspection of the subjects arms, a dark room examination, and a custodial interrogation of the person that usually leads to a disclosure of a substance the person previously ingested. Final steps are the rendering and recording of an officer’s opinion of what category of drug the person ingested as well as the actual drug the officer suspects. For example, category could be “Cannabis,” and actual drug being “Marijuana.” Guess what?- The officer’s typically render an opinion that the suspected substance ingested is the same as that confessed to! Brilliant detective work! The final step in the process is the drawing of a subjects blood and an analysis of the blood as described above.
This is not the whole procedure, but the suffice it to say, it is the “meat and potatoes” of the program. Pulling back the curtain on false assumptions, coercive procedures, and the close examination of the blood analysis itself is critical and exactly why rigorous training and experiences in these cases is paramount to be a successful DUI defense attorney.
Recently, two newsworthy and related events have come to pass; First – Amanda Knox verdict was over turned due to a showing that the investigation was less than adequate, in fact scientific evidence was processed incorrectly and failed to support the allegations; Second- the Seattle Times reported on unlawful and abusive Police Behavior, with respect to preservation of exculpatory evidence, failure to turn over such evidence, destruction of this evidence, and a denial that it even exits!
These may be extreme examples, the fact of the matter remains that they gained notoriety because the evidence was challenged, because the defense lawyers dared to pull back the curtain and say, “look at this with a critical eye!” We live in a country where proof beyond a reasonable doubt means something, but all to often jurors, judges, and prosecutors settle for what they think is simply “good enough” as a result of the type of charge the accused person is facing. If defense attorneys fail to to educate and then use that education to examine the evidence with the legal tools provided by the Constitution and State Court rules then they have failed their client, the system which requires them to be critical, and their oath as a defense attorney.