SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - A Georgia Supreme Court decision on DUI laws will change the way police handle traffic stops with suspected drunk drivers - and how those cases are handled in criminal court.
The decision has to do with how refusals to take a breath test are used in court.
Savannah attorney, Stan Friedman, didn’t downplay the significance of this Georgia Supreme Court decision.
“This is a major change in the law," Friedman said.
The decision stems from an August 2015 traffic stop where an officer suspected the driver of being under the influence. The officer gave the driver a field sobriety test, and after smelling alcohol on the driver and seeing several clues of impairment during the sobriety test, arrested the driver for driving under the influence.
During the exchange, the driver refused to take a breath test, even though the officer said doing so could result in that being used against her in court.
The driver filed a motion to leave the test refusal out of her court proceeding claiming the introduction of that evidence at trial would violate her right against compelled self-incrimination under the Georgia Constitution and Georgia Code. On Monday, the State Supreme Court agreed with her.
“Now, if a person refuses they cannot use that as evidence in a criminal trial,” Freidman said.
Friedman says that doesn’t mean a breath test cannot be used in any court proceeding.
“At this point in time, according to the ruling, it can be used as evidence in a civil trial, which is where our firm usually gets involved.”
The Supreme Court position also included this addition from Justice Michael Boggs that says the court’s position “does not forbid its use in an administrative proceeding concerning suspension of a driver’s license.”
The national president for non-profit group Mothers Against Drunk Driving said in part, “once again dismayed and angered by the Georgia Supreme Court’s lack of regard for the victims of the violent, completely preventable crime of drunk driving,” adding it’s the third ruling in as many years that’s chipped away at Georgia’s drunk driving laws.
The statement from Mothers Against Drunk Driving President Helen Witty is below:
“MADD is once again dismayed and angered by the Georgia Supreme Court’s lack of regard for the victims of the violent, completely preventable crime of drunk driving. This is the third ruling in as many years that has chipped away at Georgia’s drunk driving laws and put the rights of drunk drivers ahead of public safety and the victims of these horrific crimes. These rulings undermine the hard work by law enforcement officers, who put their lives on the line to protect the innocent people traveling Georgia’s roads.
Next week, on February 26, MADD volunteers will rally at the capitol to advocate for DUI reform. Drunk driving is a leading killer on Georgia roadways, killing 15,461 people since 1982, including 366 in 2017 alone. The fight to end drunk driving is far from over. Lawmakers must take action to protect the rights of Georgia residents, including all drunk driving victims. The number one solution to remedy this Court decision that protects rights of all Georgia residents is to mandate the use of ignition interlocks for anyone who refuses and seeks driving privileges during an administrative license suspension or the suspected drunk driver simply cannot drive — a law in 31 states already. Additionally, lawmakers must enact legislation making Georgia the 33rd state to require the use of ignition interlocks for anyone who seeks driving privileges after a DUI.”
You can see the court ruling here.