AN “EXPERT” AND THE POINT OF IMPACT IN A FELONY DUI CASE
A defendant’s belated appeal concerning his felony dui conviction. Untimely blood draws without warrants. Police opinion testimony. Excluding videos of accident reconstructions.
On November 14, 2011 Daniel Hamrick struck Ahmed Garland while driving on U.S. Highway 17 in Mount Pleasant. Ahmed Garland suffered permanent brain injuries as a result. The State argued Ahmed was stepping off a paving machine behind a row of cones when Hamrick struck him. Hamrick argued he struck Ahmed in his lane of travel.
A police officer arrived on scene within 5 minutes of the accident and administered first aid to Ahmed. Within 10 minutes an officer was questioning Hamrick and other witnesses. The officer requested that Hamrick perform field sobriety tests but Hamrick refused. Another Officer came on scene and instructed (more forcefully I presumed) Hamrick to perform sobriety tests. Hamrick performed the test and an officer stated the test indicated Hamrick was intoxicated.
The police arrested Hamrick and took him to jail where he refused to take the breathalyzer test. An officer then took Hamrick to a hospital and told him he was required to provide a blood sample. The officer did not seek a search warrant before drawing Hamrick’s blood. Hamrick’s BAC measured at .113.
Hamrick motioned to suppress the blood test arguing it was taken pursuant to a warrantless search in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights because no exigency existed, and there was no other applicable exception to the warrant requirement. Hamrick relied on Missouri v. McNeely which states, “the natural metabolization of alcohol in the bloodstream [does not] present  a per se exigency that justifies an exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement for nonconsensual blood testing.” The Trial Court found the exigent circumstances exception excused the warrant requirement on the “unique fact presented”, and denied Hamrick’s motion to suppress. Hamrick then tried to get the test suppressed because the blood wasn’t drawn within the 3 hour time limit prescribed by law. The trial court presumably found that the delay in testing did not materially affect the accuracy or reliability of the test results and denied Hamrick’s motion.
The main issues at trial concerned the officer giving expert testimony (accident reconstruction) and the exclusion of the defenses video attempting to recreate the incident.
To prove Hamrick guilty of felony DUI the State had to prove Hamrick was under the influence, that he committed an act forbidden by law or neglected any duty imposed by law in the driving of the motor vehicle, which proximately caused great bodily injury to another person.
The Stated wanted to prove that Hamrick was speeding, he failed to keep a proper lookout, and that he struck Ahmed outside the designated lane of travel.
The State intended to prove this, in part, through the Officer’s testimony over the repeated objection of Hamrick. The Court found the officer’s testimony was improper as to accident reconstruction as he was not an expert concerning accident reconstruction. The Court characterized the officer’s testimony as lay opinion, but lay opinions are limited to those based on perception. The Supreme Court took issue with the officer’s opinion because he arrived 48 minutes after the incident occurred. Further and more importantly the Court found “lay opinion is “limited to those opinions…which…do not require special knowledge, skill, experience or training. Accident reconstruction requires expertise. The trial court never qualified the officer as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education AND it doesn’t appear the officer was an expert in accident reconstruction as his training was limited to a few courses he took over a period of several years. This reminds me of Jay-Z’s line, “I ain’t passed the bar but I know a lil bit.” Here, the office wasn’t an expert but he knew a little bit. That is not o.k. because the officer gave a critical opinion concerning the point of impact of Hamrick’s vehicle and Ahmed.
Next, Hamrick attempted to offer a video to re-create his theory of the point of impact through its expert. Hamrick’s expert was in fact and expert and a mechanical and civil engineer. The trial court was concerned with the admission of the video and reasoned that the trial court could not be assured of the accuracy of any re-enactment and thought the video may mislead the jury. The Supreme Court found this to be improper because the Supreme Court opined the trial court failed to do the property analysis. The Court found the video was “clearly relevant because the video tended to prove Hamrick could not have struck Ahmed in the construction zone as the State claimed he did.” The Court went on to state Hamrick’s video would have attempted to show how the incident did not happen as the State theorized. The Supreme Court stated if the trial court was concerned that the video would mislead the jury then it was required to conduct an on the record analysis weighing it’s probative/unduly prejudicial value. The trial court did not analyze the video so it could not do the proper and required analysis.
So, now the case of Daniel Hamrick will go back to the trial court and Hamrick will get a new trial. The crucial issue of whether the State proves the point of impact was outside of Hamrick’s lane of travel will be hashed out. This time I suspect the State will bring its own witness with her own theories. To complicate matters further, since this case was tried the United State of America has ruled that a search incident to arrest permits law enforcement to conduct warrantless breath tests but not blood tests on suspected drunk drivers in Birchfield v. North Dakota, 136 S. Ct. 2160. Will this trial court rule that the States blood draw was a violation of Hamrick’s Fourth Amendment right but find that it was the product of good-faith thereby letting it in? Time will tell.