Many DUI cases arise after an motor vehicle accident. In such cases oftentimes no one, including the officer, witnesses the accused actually driving or behind the wheel. Consider, the case where an officer responds to a report of an accident, arrives on the scene, interviews a bystander (the officer concludes he is the driver immediately) found near the vehicle involved in the crash, sees the bystander uninjured, the bystander tells the officer that he was driving, the officer administered standardized field sobriety tests, and then the bystander is charged with DUI. There is no other conclusive evidence that person was driving aside from his incriminating statements.
Obviously driving (not just intoxication) is a necessary element that the state must prove beyond a reasonable doubt to obtain a DUI conviction. This is a tough burden to meet when the only evidence of driving is the defendant’s admission to driving–especially in Washington. In Washington, a defendant’s admission to driving is not admissible if the prosecution cannot provide sufficient evidence which establishes the “corpus delicti” of the crime. Corpus delicti means “body of the crime.” The corpus delicti of DUI requires prima facie evidence of driving.
State v. Hamrick is the seminal case concerning the corpus delicti rule as applied to a DUI case. In Hamrick, an officer arrived at the scene of an accident where he found a truck in a ditch and another car 200 feet west of the pickup. Both vehicles were damaged. The officer contacted the defendant in the center of the roadway. The officer did not determine whether the defendant owed either vehicle involved in the accident. However, the defendant allegedly admitted he was driving the car. The defendant was also intoxicated.
On appeal the Hamrick court concluded that the State’s evidence, aside from the defendant’s admission to driving, was insufficient to establish the corpus delicti of the crime of DUI. The state’s evidence established only that the defendant was present when the officer arrived, but there was no independent evidence connecting the defendant with control of the car. As a result the court did “not have the slight evidence necessary to logically and reasonably deduct that the defendant was driving the car.” Therefore, due to lack of independent evidence, the defendant’s admissions could not be considered, and the court held that the state failed to establish the corpus delicti. As a result dismissal of the charge was proper.
The rationale of the corpus delicti rule that Washington adheres to is “based upon the suspect nature of out-of-court confessions. The idea is to avoid convictions “of innocent persons through the use of false confessions of guilt.” Corroboration of an admission through independent evidence aside from an admission is sued to protect against potential police abuses (i.e. it would be harsh to permit convictions to stand when the only evidence is an officer’s claim that the defendant admitted guilt without more).
Beyond the corpus delicti rule that may potentially support a motion to dismiss–it is important to always consider that intoxication alone is insufficient to convict one of DUI. Actual driving or physical control of a vehicle is a necessary element of a crime. Therefore, even if the state meets its burden of providing prima facie evidence of the corpus delicti which will support the admissibility of a defendant’s alleged admission to driving–the state must still prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was in fact driving. This is the highest burden to prove and the state may have difficulty to meet this burden when no one can actually put the defendant “behind the wheel.” Corpus delicti and quasi corpus delicti issues must always be closely evaluated by the DUI defense attorney.
The attorneys at Platt & Buescher have been defending those in Oak Harbor and on Island County accused of DUI/DWI, drunk driving, and actual physical control while intoxicated for over 20 years. Contact the Oak Harbor DUI defense lawyers at Platt & Buescher today about your DUI charge.