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HINTON V. STATE (2013) Direct Evidence and the Reasonable Hypothesis Defense

HINTON v. STATE(2013) – Georgia Court of Appeals

Around 11:50 p.m. an Atlanta Police Officer who had served on the APD DUI task force for over seven years, and had made 600 DUI arrests, observed a car traveling toward him that appeared to be speeding. With a laser-speed detection device, the officer determined that the car was traveling 51 mph in a 35 mph zone. The officer initiated a traffic stop. In the process of pulling over, the driver drove over the sidewalk. Hinton, who was seventeen, was driving the car. When the officer made contact with Hinton he noticed the odor of alcohol. Hinton denied having had any alcohol and said that she had spilled an alcoholic beverage on her shirt. The officer asked Hinton to exit the vehicle to perform field sobriety tests and noticed that her eyes were glassy and her pupils were dilated. Hinton claimed to be taking medication but never did not elaborate. Hinton performed the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus test (eye test) and reportedly exhibited six out of six clues of impairment. Hinton refused a preliminary breath test and any further testing. Reportedly, Hinton then went “haywire” and started crying, cursing, and arguing with the officer. Deeming that any further questioning would be unsafe for Hinton, the officer arrested her for DUI less safe.

At a bench trial, the officer testified to the facts of the case as well as that “’based on his experience and training and over 600 DUI arrests,” that Hinton had been under the influence of alcohol. Hinton was found guilty of DUI less safe. She appealed, contending that the evidence was insufficient to support a DUI less safe conviction. Citing primarily Meeks v. State, 281 Ga. App. 334, 337 (636 SE2d 77) (2006) and Jaffray v. State, 306 Ga. App. 469, 471 (1) (702 SE2d 742) (2010), the Court of Appeals affirms the trial court’s ruling.

According to Jaffray, to sustain a conviction of DUI less safe the State must prove that the defendant was “(1) driving, (2) under the influence of alcohol, (3) to the extent that it was less safe for the person to drive.” Hinton argues that the evidence may support a DUI less safe conviction, but equally supports the alternative, reasonable hypothesis that she was under the influence of the medication she was taking rather than alcohol. But to use the reasonable hypothesis rule, all evidence against the defendant must be circumstantial (Meeks, supra), and the arresting officer’s testimony that in his opinion Hinton was under the influence serves direct evidence, eliminating the legitimacy of the reasonable hypothesis rule. The Court reasons that the circumstantial evidence and the direct evidence of the officer’s opinion was sufficient in that “any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt,” Barnett v. State, 275 Ga. App. 464 (1) (620 SE2d 663) (2005).

Although, as the Court notes, a DUI less safe can be proven by circumstantial evidence alone (Jaffray, supra), the fact that a reasonable hypothesis defense may be disrupted by the testimony of an officer’s opinion as to a suspect’s impairment seems overly self-serving. If an officer suspects someone of DUI, initiates an investigation, is met with a refusal, then arrests that person for DUI, shouldn’t he think the suspect is impaired to the point that he or she is less safe to drive? A DUI less safe arrest essentially serves as the arresting officer’s opinion regarding the suspect’s impairment, and, as Hinton upholds, provides reason to discount a reasonable hypothesis defense.

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