Summer Christlieb, 33, was recently arrested in Davie, Florida for DUI and child neglect. According to news reports, Summer Christlieb admitted to “drinking a little wine” at her son’s birthday party before allegedly piling 5 kids into the back of her car for the ride home. Police allege that none of the children were wearing seat belts.
Fortunately, no one was hurt when Christlieb crashed her car.
As a criminal defense lawyer, I can tell you that a lot more information is needed before any concrete conclusions can be drawn about this case. Just because someone has a glass of wine and gets behind of the wheel of a car, does not mean they were drunk.
In fact, Christlieb may have been wrongly arrested.
While many people personally believe it is wrong to have a drink and then drive, the law does not have such restrictions. Rather, the offense of DUI only occurs when a person drives (or is in actual physical control of a vehicle) while impaired by alcohol, drugs, or other chemical substances.
In other words, the essence of DUI is not drinking alcohol, but rather being impaired by it.
For that reason, there must be proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the driver in question was impaired. If he/she was not impaired, then they are not guilty of DUI under Florida law.
As a DUI defense attorney, I have litigated thousands of DUI cases and I can tell you that the police routinely arrest people even though they are not impaired.
I call these people “question marks.”
In such cases, the police may smell an odor of alcohol coming from the driver’s breath or the driver may have admitted to having one or two drinks. Maybe the driver also committed a minor traffic infraction, such as speeding or having a minor accident.
Even though such circumstances are a far cry from the drunk driver who is caught weaving in and out of lanes on the highway and who can barely stand without falling over when asked to step outside of his car, the police officer is placed in a bad predicament where he/she must make a very crucial decision.
If this a person who is really drunk but hides it well? Is this a person who will keep drinking? Certainly this isn’t the first time the driver has been driving after having one or two drinks.
If the officer lets the person go, he/she takes a chance that nothing bad will come of it. To understand this, you need to get inside the mind of the police officer.
For the driver, being stopped by the police is a rare event. Most people have never been arrested before and many have only been pulled over a few times, if ever.
However, unlike the driver, the police officer makes thousands of traffic stops and dozens of arrests every year. While this is a new experience for the driver, it is an everyday job for the cop.
So, the cop is thinking to himself, for every 1000 people I let go who are in this same situation, will there be one person who goes and kills someone in a horrible DUI accident?
Truthfully, as a former DUI prosecutor who has litigated thousands and thousands of DUI cases, I can absolutely tell you that the answer is yes.
Eventually, the cop will let someone go he should not have. Police know this.
As a result, cops will arrest the people who they are unsure of as well. If they even remotely suspect you are DUI, they are going to take a chance and err on the side of safety.
Unfortunately, police do not have many options on the side of the road. It is either let the driver go with a warning, issue the driver a citation for a traffic infraction, or make an arrest.
Offering the driver a ride home only happens in the movies and occasionally to well known people of importance (not you).
When a DUI lawyer defends a person, he/she must look to the same basic elements of every DUI case. As you read this, it is important to keep in mind that the burden of proof lies with the prosecution and not the accused. The defendant does not have any duty whatsoever to prove that he/she was not DUI. Rather, the prosecution is the one bringing the case so it is their obligation to prove the accusations they are making beyond a reasonable doubt.
First, is there sufficient evidence to prove the defendant was driving or in actual physical control of the vehicle in question? If an eye witness can testify that he/she saw the defendant driving, then this part of a DUI case is easily proven and a DUI lawyer may have difficulty attacking this aspect of the case.
However, there are many cases where a DUI defendant is involved in a one-vehicle crash. This can occur when their tire blows out or have a minor accident for whatever reason. Usually the person will get out of their car and sit by the curb until a tow truck arrives.
In such circumstances, police are typically not even called. Rather, they stumble upon the driver stopped on the side of the road as they drive around on routine patrol.
So long as no person can testify to seeing the DUI defendant driving the vehicle or in actual physical control, a DUI defense lawyer can likely get the case thrown out or have the charges reduced. When it comes to actual physical control, DUI lawyers will need to know if the engine was running and if not, were the keys in the ignition? Also, where was the driver? Was he/she in the driver seat or outside the vehicle when the police first saw him/her?
In Summer Christlieb’s case, I am sure prosecutors will consider using the testimony of the other passengers in the vehicle, even though they are only children.
A DUI lawyer must also consider any statements made by the DUI defendant to the police. For instance, if the DUI defendant admitted to driving, the prosecution may not need any additional witnesses.
However, in such a case, the DUI lawyer will then analyze the circumstances surrounding the incriminating statement to determine if they are admissible at trial. If they are not admissible and that is the only evidence the prosecution has to establish driving or actual physical control, then the DUI lawyer may be able to get the charges dropped or reduced to a lower offense, such as Reckless Driving.
If the DUI lawyer determines that the police violated the DUI defendant’s right to remain silent or failed to advise the DUI defendant of his/her Miranda rights, prior to custodial questioning, then the statements may be thrown out by a judge.
When the police fail to properly advise a person of their rights, it can have catastrophic consequences for the prosecution.
In my next blog entry, we will be discussing how Summer Christlieb can challenge the field sobriety exercises and any breath testing she may have performed to win her case.