In March of 2016, school teacher Meghan Caldwell was charged with Felony Vehicular Homicide as a result of an accident that killed two people. She was accused of driving under the influence; however, the story did not end there. As reported in the AJC, Meghan Caldwell was not driving under the influence when she was involved in an accident that killed Bradley Atha and Cathy Morris in March of 2016. She may have still been responsible for the accident, but that is a far cry from being a DUI driver that killed two people.
Before talking about the legal issues here, our hearts all go out to the victim's family. Their loss is tragic and sad.
However, the elephant in the room is that a police officer charged a person with a DUI who was not under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The police charged her with two counts of First Degree Vehicular Homicide, a crime that carries substantial jail time, yet she was not DUI.
Some may say this is the system working, and in the end, it did in her case. However, many errors went into what had to be a horrific ordeal of being charged with a crime while being innocent. These errors expose how the police can falsely charge a person with a crime.
To start with, a roadside alco-sensor registered for the presence of alcohol in this case. However, the blood test was negative. This is why we do not admit the preliminary breath test into evidence in Georgia.
However, Georgia prosecutors have lobbied the legislature for years to allow for its use in court. Ms. Caldwell's example is the perfect reason why the numeric result on the PBT should not be allowed in court.
The bigger issue is that a police officer determined that based on his or her experience Ms. Caldwell was a less safe driver due to the consumption of alcohol, and as a result, placed her under arrest.
That “opinion” was based on observations of the accused, including but not limited to field sobriety testing, the PBT, the alleged odor of alcohol on her breath or person, the accident (deemed to be poor driving), her motor skills, and her basic mannerisms.
These are the same factors used to convict people every day in cases where they refuse to take a chemical test.
** Practice Note: people refuse to take a breath or blood test all the time when they feel the police officer is being abusive and not listening to their side of the story**
This case shows that police officers opinions, like all opinions, can be wrong. In this case, Ms. Caldwell was arrested for felony Vehicular Homicide because the deaths were allegedly the result of her being under the influence.
Nevertheless, people are convicted every day on police officer opinions. Unlike every other criminal offense, where a person either did or did not commit a crime, DUI can be “proven” when a prosecutor asks a police officer one question in court.
“Based on your experience and training, Officer ----, did you make a determination if the defendant was a less safe driver due to the consumption of alcohol?”
In my 22 years of handling DUI cases, every prosecutor asks this same exact question. Here is the perfect example of how imperfect that opinion can be.
Why does this matter when justice ultimately prevailed? Because this accident happened 13 months ago! This woman was arrested and was being prosecuted for felony cases that could have resulted in her imprisonment for 30 years. Her face was plastered across the news media and internet. She inevitably lost countless opportunities. She will never be the same, and she will never be viewed the same by others.
This same officer's opinions have certainly been used to arrest many other people. The same flawed field sobriety observations have been used as the “probable cause” to make multiple arrests, and officer's use these evaluations every day.
Now, to be clear Ms. Caldwell will still be charged with Misdemeanor Vehicular Homicide. When a person is responsible for the death or someone through the violation of an ordinary traffic law, they are charged with misdemeanor vehicular homicide.
There is a way where a case like the above-listed matter could be resolved more fairly. How about just waiting to make an arrest until a person's blood is tested? What is the hurry? Why not see if a person is guilty before making an arrest?
A second suggestion is to remember that people are presumed innocent when they are charged. We all fall into the habit of seeing someone being arrested on television and automatically assume their guilt. In fact, when a crime is more severe, we are more likely to assume guilt. Think about Ms. Caldwell the next time you assume someone's guilt. Innocent people can be charged with a DUI.