You may have heard people discussing criminal court cases in which the defendant was either acquitted at trial or on appeal had his conviction reversed based on what is colloquially known as a “technicality.” This usually refers to the defense attorney persuading the trial or appeals court that because the arresting officer or someone else failed to strictly comply with a legal requirement, under the literal language of the law the arrest and charges become invalid.
Sometimes people assume that these “technicality” defenses are less than honorable, amounting to a playing a trick on the legal system to spare an otherwise guilty person of the punishment he deserves. But this assumption misses a serious point of criminal law: namely, in every case the accused is presumed to be innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, and that the prosecution must rigorously adhere to its own standards in pressing its case. Anything less opens the door to possible abuse of the law by police and district attorneys, something that courts have little tolerance for.
“The devil is in the details”
DUI cases on Oklahoma have sometimes been battlegrounds that have tested how far law enforcement authorities can stretch the law in their zeal to get drunk drivers off the roads. A recurring theme of these cases centers on whether a police officer who seizes a driver’s license from a suspected drunk driver has done so properly; and in a surprisingly large number of cases, the answer turns out to be, “No.”
As a recent example of how this can happen, consider a 2015 case in Oklahoma County involving a man accused of drunk driving who prevailed against the State’s efforts to take his license away. At the time of the traffic stop that led to the drunk driving charges, the police officer took the man’s license and in return gave him a receipt in the form of an “Officer’s Affidavit and Notice of Revocation/Disqualification.” But the police officer made one mistake during this exchange: he failed to make a sworn statement in the affidavit that he had reasonable grounds to believe that the driver was under the influence at the time of the arrest. Although the Department of Public Safety (DPS) still found the license revocation to be valid despite this oversight, when the driver took the matter to court the judge saw things differently and had the case thrown out. DPS then appealed the judge’s decision to the Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals. The Hunsucker Legal Group’s dedicated driver’s license attorney, Brian Morton, defended the licensee in front of the appellate courts.
What was interesting in this case is that on appeal it was DPS — and not the alleged drunk driver — that was making “technicality” arguments to get around the police officer’s failure to include the sworn statement in his affidavit. It argued that a second, supplemental affidavit made up for the first affidavit’s defect in this regard, and that both the original and supplemental affidavits were effectively “one” affidavit for purposes of the law. DPS also tried other technical arguments like claiming that the sworn affidavit does not need to be issued at the time of the arrest, and that only the revocation notice needs to be legally served on the driver.
In a nine-page decision, the appeals court — although it agreed with some of the DPS arguments — ultimately found that the failure of the police officer to strictly adhere to the sworn statement requirement was a “fatal defect” in the DPS case which required the license revocation to be reversed in the driver’s favor.
What was also interesting in this case was the way that the appeals court used other, earlier appeal decisions to back up its reasoning. The problem of police making critical mistakes in the paperwork involved with DUI arrests is not a new one.
What does this mean to you?
Not every defense against charges of drunk driving will be based on the argument that you were not under the influence. To discourage police and prosecutors from playing “fast and loose” with the law, courts in this state require them to follow the law to the letter; even a seemingly minor error can become a “fatal” one in your favor.
The challenge, then, is to recognize when such a fatal error has occurred. You may not recognize it when it happens, but an experienced DUI attorney likely will. This is why, even if it seems on the surface like the government has an open-and-shut case against you, you should still seek the best legal assistance you can when it comes to assessing the strengths and possible weaknesses of the prosecution’s arguments. A seemingly minor point that you and the police officer may not notice at the time of the vehicle stop can make all the difference between keeping your license and losing it.