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COGHLAN V. STATE – A12A2388 – The Nature of Evidence in a DUI Investigation

Coghlan v. State (2013) – Georgia Court of Appeals

Around 2:00 a.m. on September 16, 2006, Donna J. Coghlan was pulled over for driving on the wrong side of the road. The officer approached the vehicle and noticed a strong odor of alcohol. When he took Coghlan’s license and walked back to his patrol car to verify her information, Coghlan drove away. The officer pursued Coghlan and she stopped a few blocks away from the initial. The officer then radioed a DUI task force officer to take conduct an initial DUI investigation. The task force officer testified that during his investigation the odor of alcohol was very strong on Coghlan’s breath, that she stumbled and was unsteady when exiting her car, and that her speech was slowed and slurred to the point that he had trouble understanding her. Coghlan admitted to drinking, and during routine questioning, she responded with rambling, semi-coherent answers. She refused field sobriety tests but agreed to a state-administered breath test, which she was unable to perform properly at the station, resulting in a default refusal. At trial, Coghlan was acquitted of driving on the wrong side of the road and found not guilty of reckless driving, but guilty of DUI less safe. She appealed, contending that there wasn’t sufficient evidence to support a conviction. Citing Duncan v. State, 305 Ga. App. 268, 270 (1) (699 SE2d 341) (2010), the Appeals Court affirms the trial court’s ruling on the grounds that, despite no field sobriety tests or breath test evidence, there was sufficient evidence to support a conviction.

Though the crux of this appeal is straightforward, it is worthwhile because it has to do with the nature of evidence in a DUI trial. With Duncan, the Court explains that:

Methods of proof to show impairment may include evidence of (i) erratic driving behavior, (ii) refusal to [submit to state-administered chemical testing], and (iii) the officer’s own observations (such as smelling alcohol and observing strange behavior) and resulting opinion that the alcohol made it less safe for the defendant to drive. Here the State used all three methods. Duncan v. State (2010).

It stands to reason, though, that if Coghlan was initially pulled over for failure to maintain lane, a much more subjective and usually less extreme traffic violation than driving on the wrong side of the road, the State’s case would be much weaker. The point being that in an initial DUI investigation there are degrees of strength in evidence. Considering that it is a suspect’s right to refuse all tests if a person in the midst of a DUI investigation is able to assess the general strength of the available evidence of their impairment, an absolute refusal could greatly benefit their case. There is the possibility that a judge would issue a warrant to draw blood, but the issuance would be based on the existence of probable cause emanating from the three measures in Duncan. Simply put, if you’re suspected of DUI, it’s good to understand where you stand to gain or lose from submitting to or refusing to go along with the investigation.

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