A clearly broken DUI/DWI law

Make no mistake about it: I’m no fan of those who endanger others needlessly by driving while intoxicated (sometimes called driving under the influence or drink-driving). But some of the laws are set up to give people like Daryl Fleck what can be perceived as a raw deal. And I believe he did get a very raw deal.

Originally reported on a site called simply thenewspaper.com and blogged by Young Americans for Liberty and Lew Rockwell, the facts of Daryl’s case are as follows:

  • Daryl was found asleep in his legally parked car close to midnight, one night during the summer of 2007, with the keys in the center console.
  • The engine in Daryl’s car was cold to the touch (it had not been driven recently).
  • He admitted to having consumed a significant amount of alcohol earlier that night.
  • He was tested to have a blood-alcohol of .18, twice the legal limit.

And based on these facts, even though nothing indicated Daryl had actually driven the car while intoxicated, he was convicted of DUI under the law of the state of Minnesota, simply because the keys he had could turn the ignition and in theory he could have driven the car.

Not to mention, when police tried to start the car, it would not start. Granted, this was some weeks after the fact, plenty of time for the battery to drain down to zilch.

Granted, Daryl had three previous DUI convictions and was thus far from an ideal test case for this situation. Still, I think this is an obvious case of way overzealous prosecution and a law that is simply too broad. And for that, Daryl, and no doubt several others, get another DUI conviction for sleeping in a car with that car’s ignition key.

And I know it’s a bit odd for me to quote the FSF’s “Some Confusing or Loaded Words and Phrases That Are Worth Avoiding”, but the words apply the same here as there:

The idea that laws decide what is right or wrong is mistaken in general. Laws are, at their best, an attempt to achieve justice; to say that laws define justice or ethical conduct is turning things upside down.

And in this case, I believe the law has failed to achieve justice. This is a broken law and it is in the best interests of the people of Minnesota to act to fix it.

There is one other thing about this case I’d like to comment upon. From thenewspaper.com’s story:

As Fleck was an unsympathetic figure with multiple DUI convictions in his
past, prosecutors had no problem convincing a jury to convict. The court took up Fleck’s case to expand the precedent to cover the case of mere presence in an undriven — and perhaps undrivable — car into the definition of drunk driving. The court relied on Fleck’s drunken claim that his car was operable to set aside the physical evidence to the contrary.

When I was last on a jury, the defendant did have a prior conviction. However, we did not find out about that until the sentencing phase. Granted, that was in Texas, and this case is in Minnesota. However I still find it difficult to believe that the jury knew about his prior convictions during the guilt-or-innocence phase of the trial. If they did, that’s another broken law that needs fixing up there in Minnesota.

“Inmate…” revisited

I’ve let this sit here way too long. It’s time I post this and be done with it.

This is a follow-up post to my original post on this story back in 2009 November, so just in case you have not already read it, you may wish to go back and read that one and get some of the background. In case you don’t, here it is in a nutshell: I blogged my reaction to a Houston Press article describing an apparent lapse in medical care of a man at the Harris County Jail. While this man, Monte Killian, doesn’t start his unfortunate ordeal with our “justice system” in the best of medical shape, the medical care he receives is so sloppily managed that he is effectively coerced into pleading guilty, and on the day after his release he is immediately sent to the emergency room by his doctor.

Before I go any further: It is my position that regardless of the crime of which one is accused, that this kind of thing should never happen. One whom a government agency has taken into custody and thus accepted the responsibility for should not just be released into the free world in a condition where one should be in a hospital. To do otherwise is reckless.

I honestly had no idea when writing that post on this story that it would be so hotly contested by the Harris County Sheriff’s Department and that I would wind up exchanging several e-mails with both Randall Patterson, the Houston Press reporter, and Alan Bernstein, the HCSD’s director of public affairs. I did learn a few things about the case that I did not know before, that were not made quite as explicitly clear in the original story.

I have seen both the memo Mr. Bernstein sent to the Houston Press, and the response from Margaret Downing, the editor. Unfortunately, I am not permitted to quote from either, but I am permitted to relay my impressions after reading both. Were I not, there would be no reason to enter another post on the topic.

I, of course, did not expect the warmest reception to a story quite critical of a party, by a liaison for that party. Mr. Bernstein’s memo is very aggressive in calling out what he believes to be errors in the story, quotes taken out of context, and he like. I believed many of these errors to be minor and immaterial to the story, even before reading the official word from Ms. Downing that the Houston Press stands by the story as printed.

Even the slightly more significant errors do not really undermine the story. In fact, it’s kind of a stretch to call some of them errors, some can be seen as simply a different way of telling the story that doesn’t quite jive with the county’s PR people want out there.

This part is, or at least should be, public record: Monte did not plead guilty to the drug possession charge, he pleaded guilty to assaulting a police officer. However, this latter charge falls squarely in the category of the type of “trumped up” charges often laid on someone in the hope that even if the original case is thrown out, the other charge(s) will stick. Other examples of these kinds of charges: resisting arrest, evading arrest, disorderly conduct, escape and related charges (for those already in custody). These are not the only ones.

The laws are written specifically to make sure these trumped up charges stick even if the original charge is dropped. In fact, just to give you an idea, I’ll quote some of the penal code here, for the charge of resisting arrest:

Sec. 38.03. RESISTING ARREST, SEARCH, OR TRANSPORTATION. (a) A person commits an offense if he intentionally prevents or obstructs a person he knows is a peace officer or a person acting in a peace officer’s presence and at his direction from effecting an arrest, search, or transportation of the actor or another by using force against the peace officer or another.

(b) It is no defense to prosecution under this section that the arrest or search was unlawful.

There are similar sections of other laws (most notably, 38.08 as it applies to both charges related to escape).

I know I’m speculating big time here, but I can’t let this go unsaid. It is entirely possible the “crack rock” the original arresting officer saw was just a ploy to try to establish probable cause, of looking through events with “cop-colored glasses.” I will admit I wasn’t there, and I haven’t seen the original arrest report. At some point I’ll try to get whatever is available as public record.

Even if I were to give the HCSD every benefit of the doubt, and accept Mr. Bernstein’s memo as the gospel truth, I am still left with this: A man who HCSD was responsible for the custody and care of, was given “strict ER precautions” by a county doctor at LBJ Hospital, and yet the day after his release directly to the free world (not to a hospital or medical care facility), he’s in such bad shape he’s sent immediately to the ER by his own doctor.

And yet, the county (as evidenced by Ms. Garza’s statement quoted in the original post) stands by the PR spin that “Mr. Killian’s medical issues were always promptly addressed by the physicians,” everything is fine and dandy. Oh, what, he was barely alive when he pleaded guilty? This newspaper reporter writes this story that he pleaded guilty just to save his life? Hey, we did our job, we kept yet another trial off the court’s docket, we made sure the public defender didn’t have to deal with another trial, mission accomplished.

That’s inexcusable. That’s disgraceful. That’s the kind of stuff that wrecks years’ worth of goodwill and makes honest PR people cringe knowing they might have to clean up that mess.

I’m not expecting first-rate medical care out of the doctors and nurses the HCSD hires to work in the jail. But even the deputies should be able to make the call “hey, we can’t just let this guy wander out into the free world like this, he needs to go to the hospital or at least have a doctor look at him.” Maybe even say to the inmate (Monte in this case) “you’re a free man right now, but we really think you should get checked out by a doctor.”

It does not matter if one is accused of assaulting one of their own. There is a reason for the expression “one of Harris County’s finest.” The badge means one has a duty to be better than that. Those not up to fulfilling that duty shouldn’t be wearing that badge.