No one is happy about approaching a DWI checkpoint. However, for drivers who have had a few drinks, or may have smoked marijuana earlier in the day, this can be a horrifying experience. Part of what makes DWI checkpoints alarming is the unknown surrounding what officers can ask you, what you are allowed to say, and whether they are going to ask you to take a blood or breath test. But are New York DWI checkpoints really legal?

Given the constitutional protections everyone enjoys to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, the legality of DWI checkpoints often comes up. However, DWI checkpoints are legal, or, better said, they may be legal if they are properly carried out. A recent New York DWI case involving a defendant who was arrested at a checkpoint gave the court the opportunity to elaborate on DWI checkpoint law in New York.

According to the court’s opinion, the defendant approached a DWI checkpoint in Westchester County. As the defendant neared the checkpoint, he almost hit one of the officers on duty. The officer noticed that the defendant’s car smelled like alcohol and, when asked, the defendant explained he was coming from a party where he was drinking. The defendant agreed to take field sobriety tests, after which he was arrested for DWI and subsequently convicted.

Everyone knows that driving a car under the influence of drugs or alcohol is against the law; however, fewer people are aware that operating a boat while intoxicated carries similar criminal penalties. Under state law, it is illegal to operate a boat while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Violations of the state’s boating while intoxicated statute provides for escalating penalties for each subsequent conviction, including fines and potentially jail time.

In a recent case, the court considered an appeal filed by a defendant who was convicted of negligently criminal homicide and boating while intoxicated charges.

The Facts of the Case

According to the court’s opinion, the case arose after a 16-year-old girl was killed after hitting her head on a bridge while riding on a boat that was owned by the defendant. The accident occurred in the early morning hours. Evidently, the defendant was aboard the boat, and allowed his 17-year-old co-defendant to drive. The night before, the defendant, the co-defendant, and the victim, were all at the defendant’s home drinking and smoking marijuana. Once the defendant got behind the wheel, he started driving erratically. Witnesses explained that the boat was traveling at high speeds, swerving across the water immediately before the accident. There was no testimony that the defendant tried to regain control of the boat, or that he told the co-defendant to stop driving in a dangerous manner.

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Recently, a state appellate court issued an opinion in a New York DWI case involving a defendant’s challenge to the evidence used to convict him at trial. Specifically, the defendant argued that the police officer violated his constitutional rights when the officer approached his car, knocked on the window, demanded the defendant exit the vehicle, and then conduct field sobriety tests.

After reviewing each of the defendant’s contentions, the appellate court affirmed the defendant’s conviction.

The Facts of the Case

According to the court’s opinion, a police officer was on routine patrol just after midnight when he encountered a running pickup truck parked on the shoulder, with its lights on. The officer pulled behind the truck and waited for five minutes before calling in a possible disabled vehicle. The officer then approached the truck, finding the defendant asleep in the driver’s seat.

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Police officers are generally able to pull over a vehicle any time they observe a vehicle commit a traffic or equipment violation. However, when an officer initiates a traffic stop, the violation they observed may not be the true reason they are effectuating the stop. In some cases, officers profile drivers, using a minor violation to conduct a traffic stop in hopes of finding something more damning. That seems to be exactly what happened in a recent New York DWI case.

According to the court’s opinion, a police officer observed a car parked in an area marked as a bus stop. The officer asked the driver to move, and the driver responded he was waiting for someone. As the officer walked back to his patrol vehicle, the man drove off. As he was driving away, the officer saw that the car’s left brake light was out. The officer pulled the driver over, and eventually arrested him for driving while intoxicated.

The defendant filed a pre-trial motion to suppress, arguing that he had two working brake lights and that the stop was unconstitutional. The defendant relied on the officer’s own testimony that, while the left brake light was out, the vehicle was equipped with a center brake light. The trial court found the defendant’s position persuasive and granted the motion. The prosecution appealed.

New York DWI law identifies multiple levels of offenses involving motor vehicles and alcohol or drugs. Most first-time offenses are classified as traffic infractions, which are generally subject to lesser penalties than criminal offenses. If an individual has one or more prior convictions during the previous ten years, however, New York may treat a subsequent offense as a felony. Penalties could include several years’ imprisonment, substantial fines, and a lengthy period of license suspension. A felony DWI conviction in New York may also require completion of a drug or alcohol addiction program, along with classes offered by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD).

The New York DWI statute divides the offense into five offenses, based on the substance involved and the extent of impairment:
– Driving while ability impaired (DWAI): Operating a motor vehicle while impaired due to alcohol consumption. This could involve blood alcohol content (BAC) below the “legal limit” of 0.08 percent, but usually greater than 0.05 percent.
– Driving while intoxicated (DWI): Driving “while in an intoxicated condition,” or with BAC of 0.08 percent or more. For commercial vehicle drivers, the limit is 0.04 percent.
– Aggravated DWI: Driving with BAC of 0.18 percent or higher.
– Driving while ability impaired by drugs (DWAID)
– Driving while ability impaired by the combined influence of drugs or alcohol (DWAI-Combination)

Most offenses are classified as traffic infractions or misdemeanors. Certain offenses, however, are classified as felonies. A second conviction for DWI, aggravated DWI, DWAID, or DWAI-Combination within a period of ten years is an E felony. This is punishable by up to four years in jail, a fine of $1,000 to $5,000, and driver’s license suspension for a minimum of one year. For a second aggravated DWI conviction, the minimum period of license suspension is eighteen months.
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New York bans the use of “portable electronic devices” while driving, which includes writing or reading text messages. Amendments to New York traffic laws several years ago increased the number of “points” attached to the offense. A driver accrues a certain number of points for different traffic infractions. Accruing too many points results in license suspension. Police in Westchester County and around the state are on the lookout for texting while driving offenses. The number of convictions spiked shortly after the new law took effect. While the number of annual tickets has fallen since then, enforcement has remained steady. Police often use texting violations to identify other infractions, such as lack of seat belts. New York drivers should be aware of these laws and the potential consequences.

Section 1225-D of the New York Vehicle & Traffic Law prohibits texting while driving. A fine for a first offense may range from $50 to $100. A second offense within eighteen months of the first may result in a fine of $50 to $250. For a third offense within that time frame, the maximum fine increases to $450. In 2013, a new law took effect that increased penalties for texting while driving. Shortly afterwards, the governor announced a $1 million initiative to catch distracted drivers with “undercover vehicles.”

Under the Driver Violation Point System, the New York Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) assigns points to drivers for specified traffic infractions. If a driver accrues eleven or more points in an eighteen-month period, their license could be suspended. They may request a hearing before the DMV if they claim that they were not driving when an offense occurred. They cannot, however, challenge a finding of guilt before the DMV. That can only happen in the courts. The DMV increased the number of points associated with a texting while driving conviction in 2012. It now adds five points to one’s license. Most traffic offenses add three or four points.
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If you were pulled over on suspicion of drinking and driving, and you refused to submit to a chemical test, you may face serious consequences. At the Law Office of Mark A. Siesel, our New York DWI defense team understands how to handle refusal hearings and protect your rights at every step of the way.

New York State’s Vehicle and Traffic Law requires any person who operates a motor vehicle to take a blood, breath, urine, or saliva test to help law enforcement determine the alcohol or drug content in the person’s blood. In other words, under New York’s “implied consent” law, a driver who is arrested for an alcohol-related offense must submit to a chemical test.

If you are pulled over for a DWI in New York, and you refuse to take a breathalyzer test or chemical test, you may be subject to a DWI refusal hearing. Put another way, you can refuse to take a breathalyzer test, but there will be consequences. If a driver refuses to submit to a chemical test, he or she must be given a specific refusal warning.

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A 56 year old school bus driver in the Lakeland School District in Northern Westchester County has been charged with felony DWI after an accident on May 11, 2015 in which the bus she was operating reportedly struck a telephone pole. Mary Coletti, of Cortlandt Manor, was transporting approximately 35 high school students to the Walter Panas High School at approximately 7:00 AM when the bus allegedly sideswiped a telephone pole on Red Mill Road, pursuant to information from the New York State Police, who investigated the accident.

When the police arrived, Ms. Coletti was asked to submit to a breathalyzer, which reportedly showed a blood alcohol content of 0.14%, significantly higher than the 0.08% the legal standard for what constitutes DWI in the state of New York. There are several additional implications which apply in this case that create more serious legal issues for Ms. Coletti. First, under Leandra’s Law, an operator who is charged with DWI with passengers under the age of 16 in the vehicle is automatically charged with a felony, and this felony charge will not be reduced pursuant to the policy of the Westchester County District Attorney’s Office. Presumably, some, if not all, of the passengers on the bus operated by Ms. Coletti were under the age of 16.

Ms. Coletti was arraigned in local Court in Cortlandt Manor, and entered a plea of not guilty. She was then transported to the Westchester County jail apparently due to the fact that she was not able to post the $1,000 bail. Because local courts such as the Cortlandt Town Court do not have jurisdiction over felony cases (these courts have jurisdiction only in misdemeanors or violations such as traffic tickets, for example), this case will ultimately have to be transferred to the Westchester County Court in White Plains. In the County Court, there will be several conferences between the Judge, the Westchester DA’s office and Ms. Coletti’s defense attorney, during which there will be discussions as to a possible plea, or if no agreement can be reached, a trial will be scheduled. Clearly, an important determination as to a potential plea will be whether any of the students were injured, and how many of the students were under the age of 16.

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When operating a motor vehicle in the state of New York, drivers give their acceptance to provide a sample of their blood, breath, urine or saliva if requested to do so during the course of a valid traffic stop for a violation of the Vehicle & Traffic Law. If you are stopped by a police officer for a lane violation, for example (swerving between two lanes) or operating the car erratically, the officer is likely to ask you if you have been drinking anything of an alcoholic nature. Regardless of your response to that question, the officer can then ask you to blow into a device known as an “Alco-sensor.” If you do and the reading is positive, the officer has probable cause to arrest you for Driving While Intoxicated.

What if you refuse to provide a breath, blood or urine sample? If you do so, you can still be arrested for DWI , based upon the officer’s observations of your walking, the color of your eyes, an odor of alcohol on your breath, or other “field Sobriety tests” which the officer can request that you perform, such as standing on one leg, or reciting the alphabet or counting backwards and forwards. However, in addition to the arrest for DWI, if you refuse to provide a breath or other chemical sample, you will now be charged with a “refusal to take a chemical test”, which is an administrative, not criminal infraction, with different but no less onerous implications.

A refusal to take a chemical test in Westchester County, for example, will result in a hearing at the Department of Motor Vehicles in Yonkers, within two weeks of the arraignment in the criminal case, in which the DWI case against you will be heard. The refusal hearing, which is generally held on a Monday or Wednesday afternoon, is conducted by the one administrative judge on staff in Yonkers, Walter Zulkowski. Generally, most people are represented by an attorney at these hearings, and for a very good reason. Although this is not a criminal proceeding, if you are found to have refused the chemical test, your license to operate a motor vehicle will be revoked for one year, and for 18 months if you have a commercial driver’s license. Obviously, for drivers of taxis, buses or trucks, a finding of a refusal to take a chemical test can be devastating as it is likely to lead to losing his or her employment for a year and a half, although there might be a possibility of maintaining some form of conditional license for non-commercial operation of a vehicle.

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On December 27, 2014, Thomas Palermo, a 41 year old software engineer at John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, was riding his bicycle on a road popular with bicyclists for its wide bike lanes and steep hills. At that same time, Heather Cook, a 58 year old Episcopalian bishop and one of the highest ranking officials in the Maryland Episcopal Diocese, was allegedly operating her motor vehicle with a blood alcohol level of 0.22% and texting while driving. The legal limit for intoxication in the State of Maryland, as in New York, is 0.08%.

Ms. Cook apparently veered to the right into the bike line while distracted by texting, and struck Mr. Palermo. According to the police, Bishop Cook then left the scene of the accident, offering no assistance to Mr. Palermo, and returned approximately 30 minutes later accompanied by another church official.

Mr. Palermo died a local hospital shortly after the accident, with survivors including his wife and two young children, ages 4 and 6. Ms. Cook was arrested and charged with criminally negligent manslaughter, driving while impaired and texting, and leaving the scene of a personal injury accident. She was then released on her own recognizance. Considering her significant position with the diocese, it is quite surprising that in 2010, Bishop Cook pled guilty to a DWI charge of operating her motor vehicle with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.27%, well over three times the legal limit of intoxication. She was sentenced to probation and ordered to pay a fine of $300.00. Despite this fact, Cook was still elected to Bishop.

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