Whenever a prospective client tells me that they think there is no hope for their case and ask “should I just go and plead guilty?” I always say no! When you are charged with crime, you always have a right to present a defense to a jury of your peers. This fact alone indicates that not only is there is always hope, but you have a fighting change to tell your story to the Jury. But you have to be willing to take that chance and go to trial. I represented a client charged with Operating Under the Influence OUI that didn’t see much hope in his case, but with a closer look, I saw multiple problems in the State’s case against him. Ultimately, my client stood his ground, and we took the case to trial, where the Jury declared my client Not Guilty of OUI.
Maine OUI Statute
1-A. OFFENSE. A person commits OUI if that person:
A. Operates a motor vehicle:
1) While under the influence of intoxicants; or
2) While having an alcohol level of 0.08 grams or more of alcohol per 100 milliliters of blood or 210 liters of breath;
Lost on Maine’s Back Roads
My client, who was from out of State, has a vacation home in Maine. He had been staying at his vacation home, as there was some tension with his wife at home. One day, he attended a county fair to relieve some stress, but he still was not having a good day. He had been arguing with his wife over his cell phone, making him feel stressed out when he was supposed to be unwinding. He had a mug of beer while at the fair.
On the way back from the county fair, client became lost on Maine’s back roads. The last straw came when he hit his side rear-view mirror on a narrow bridge. Stressed out, lost, and with damage to his car, he did something to deal with how he was feeling in a way that not all of us would have chosen to do- he stopped off at the first general store he found and purchased some alcohol.
Having purchased the alcohol, my client started drinking it right there in the parking lot. Soon thereafter, he made a call on his cell phone to his neighbor in Maine to come get him and bring him to his vacation home. Since he was already lost and did not know where he was, he flagged down a motorist and asked her to talk to his friend on his cell phone to tell him where he was. To the motorist, my client already appeared to be drunk, and it appeared odd that he was insisting that she talk to someone on his cell phone. After helping my client, the motorist called the local police to report him.
While waiting for his friend to arrive, my client continued to drink his alcohol, and he had conversations with a few people in the parking lot of the general store. By the time the police arrived, he had finished his drink.
Gaps in the Police Investigation
To the police, the situation appeared to be an “open and shut” case of Operating Under the Influence (OUI). They found my client by his car with the empty alcohol container within easy reach of the driver, there was damage to his car, and it was painfully apparent that my client had consumed alcohol recently. My client never denied that by the time the police arrived, he was intoxicated and making increasingly grandiose statements to the police. With the clear state of intoxication of my client and the damage to the car, the police assumed that he must have driven drunk, and so my client was taken to the station for an alcohol breath test, where my client blew a 0.21, which is over 2.5 times the legal limit. Throughout this process, my client admitted to being drunk, but he never admitted to have ever been behind the wheel in this state.
In the police report, I found significant gaps in the investigation. The most glaring error was that the police failed to interview several witnesses who were there at the scene and who could have testified that my client started drinking after he had stopped his car, which would have shed light on the question whether my client had in fact driven his car while under the influence of alcohol.
A Lot At Stake for the Defendant
The OUI charge for my client would have had a much more serious impact than a first offense OUI conviction. From his home State, he already had 2 OUIs on his record. With a third conviction for drunk driving, he would have lost his driver’s license permanently, and so it was vital to fight this charge.
Heading into trial, my client was worried. He still believed that the facts of his case did not look good for him. He had admitted to drinking the beer at the fair. He admitted to drinking the bottle of alcohol found in his vehicle. The police did not believe him when he explained he had just purchased and immediately finished it, and so how would the Jury believe him? I understood how he felt, as we had a lot of conversations about the effects of being found guilty at trial. However, I knew where the State’s case was weak.
Previously, I had taken advantage of the administrative hearing provided by the BMV and cross-examined the arresting officers to expose more facts about their shabby investigation. At the BMV Hearing I brought out the fact that the police department failed to interview all the witnesses at the general store parking lot. Also, I had a very simple theory for his defense; that the State could not produce any evidence to contradict the fact that my client had consumed alcohol after driving, but prior to the breath test. That creates a big problem for the State’s case, as under the law, a charge of a Maine OUI requires that you are legally intoxicated at the time of driving, not after parking the car and waiting for a friend to come get you.
The Defendant Takes the Stand
At trial, during cross-examination of the arresting officers, my client became more confident in his chances. When the State presented its case, I hammered on the State’s witnesses in cross-examination over their shabby Maine OUI investigation. When it was time for us to present our case, all that my client needed to do was to get on the stand to tell his story to the jury, filling in the cracks about what he was doing in the parking lot prior to the arrival of the police.
Well prior to trial, I had a lengthy discussion with him about his Fifth Amendment right to not testify at trial, as well as the pitfalls of giving up his Fifth Amendment rights. However, due to the overall evidence we needed to bring out and the nature of our defense, I felt that it would be necessary for my client to take the stand. He could have chosen to not testify on his own behalf, but in this instance we agreed that there was no other way that his side of the story would have come to light but for him to tell his own story.
On the stand, my client performed well under my direct examination and under the State’s cross-examination. He filled in the missing pieces for the jury, and with no other witnesses called, I made my closing argument, focusing on the shabby Maine OUI investigation and the fact that the State could not prove that my client’s 0.21 blood alcohol content could be pinpointed to when he was behind the wheel.
As an experienced Maine criminal defense lawyer, I know to not assume anything with juries because they could rule either way, but I felt particularly good about this one. The jury came back with a verdict of Not Guilty, which made my client very pleased. This would not have happened, had my client just gone and plead guilty because he thought there was no hope for his case.