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Driving Under the Influence v. Operating a Vehicle While Intoxicated

by | Aug 27, 2012

A recent decision handed down by the D.C. Court of Appeals held that even though penalties for driving under the influence and Operating a Vehicle While Intoxicated are different, the standard for proving them are the same.

D.C. DUI defense lawyers recognize this is as a positive thing, as it requires prosecutors to adhere to the same standard of proof for OWI, instead of treating it as if it required less evidence simply because it carries a lesser punishment.

The case, Taylor v. District of Columbia, an appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, answered the question of the intention of OWI. The panel of justices held that the statute was created to give prosecutors a lesser offense with which to strike a plea bargain in DUI cases, but it was never intended to be a “lesser DUI charge” with more lax standards with regard to proof of intoxication behind the wheel.

That’s essentially what happened with the lower court, where the trial judge had instructed the jury in the case that an OWI “is a lesser standard” and furthermore failed to tell jurors that they would have to find the defendant had been impaired to “an appreciable degree,” which is the same standard used in DUI cases.

Unfortunately, that ruling doesn’t mean much for the man in the middle of it, as the appellate court also agreed that despite that failed instruction, the jury had still been given proper instructions as to the underlying definition of OWI. The jury was hung.

But what this does is ensure that future accused DUI offenders won’t be convicted based on the same erroneous assumption that OWI carries some lesser burden of proof.

DUI carries penalties of up to 90 days in jail, while an OWI carries a maximum 30-day sentence. But the idea of OWI was never to be considered as a crime for operating a vehicle with a lesser amount of alcohol in one’s system – or a lesser amount of proof. The standard for DUI and OWI convictions is operating a motor vehicle while impaired. The typical measurement is having a blood alcohol level of 0.08 percent or higher. However, when evidence of that does not exist, other evidence, such as officer testimony, witness statements and field sobriety tests, come into play.

According to court documents, the defendant was arrested in February 2009 by Metropolitan Police who were instructed to be on the lookout for a driver in a dark vehicle who was operating it recklessly. He was seen traveling on the wrong side of the road for several blocks.

Officers reported a strong odor of beer, noting a delay in the responses of the suspect, as well as watery eyes and slurred speech.

The case proceeded to trial, with the defendant facing both DUI and OWI charges. Jurors in their deliberations were confused about the difference between the two charges. It was in explaining this difference that the judge incorrectly indicated that OWI has a lesser standard of proof.

The standard for both charges is essentially this: That the defendant be impaired to the point where they are “appreciably” less able to exercise the type of judgement and physical skill required to operate a vehicle.

If you are facing DUI charges in D.C., contact the Scrofano Law, PC for a free and confidential consultation to discuss your rights or fill out our online contact form. Visa, Mastercard and Discover cards accepted. Call 202-765-3175.