Prosecutors decided to drop a felony DUI charge against a former Teacher of the Year after tests showed that she had not consumed any alcohol or other drugs.
According to the SC Highway Patrol, the woman turned her car in front of the motorcycle of an off-duty police officer. The motorcycle struck her car, and the officer died.
She was given standardized field sobriety tests (SFSTs) and a breath test at the scene. While the breath test showed she had a blood alcohol content of 0.00, a state trooper said she performed poorly on the SFSTs. The trooper also claimed she smelled of alcohol and had red, glassy eyes.
The responding officer said she was drunk, and an off-duty officer was killed. So, she was charged with felony DUI.
Prosecutors didn't have much of a choice other than to dismiss the case when further tests, including independent blood analysis, confirmed that the driver had no alcohol or other drugs in her system.
Was the Teacher of the Year Driving Drunk?
Based on what we know, it sure doesn't look like it now.
Can a police officer smell the odor of alcohol when the subject hasn't had any alcohol whatsoever? Sure, it's possible.
Would the person have red, glassy eyes? That too is possible.
Would a sober person perform poorly on field sobriety tests? Again, it's possible...
Was she on drugs instead of drunk? If the trooper had claimed in his report that he suspected her of using some other drug, it might seem more reasonable. But, he continued to claim that he could smell alcohol even after the breath test showed she had consumed no alcohol.
Or, Was the Officer Lying?
That raises a disturbing possibility - maybe he just wanted to arrest her, and he decided not to let the evidence get in the way.
I've long suspected that many ordinary people, prosecutors, police officers, and judges will look the other way when police officers lie in their reports or on the stand - when they are lying or exaggerating to convict a "bad guy."
This was not a "bad guy." She appears to be the very opposite of a "bad guy." A school teacher, loved by her community, who was also teacher of the year. If the officer lied about her condition after the accident, what did he have to gain by that?
It Can Happen to Anyone...
I blogged about this case a couple of months ago, and pointed out that a DUI or even felony DUI can happen to anyone:
If any headline emphasizes the fact that this can happen to anyone, it's "Police officer dies in DUI crash with Teacher of the Year."
Maybe, this case now also illustrates how an officer lying about whether a person is driving drunk could also happen to anyone?
But, Was the Teacher at Fault in the Accident?
Just because she was not drunk doesn't mean the accident wasn't her fault - if she didn't bother to look and turned out in front of a motorcyclist, she is liable for the motorcyclist's wrongful death whether he was a police officer or a pariah.
According to the accident report, she pulled out in front of the motorcycle. If that is true, she could still be liable for the accident - failing to yield the right-of-way to a motorcyclist is negligence.
But, the trooper who says she pulled out in front of the motorcycle is the same trooper who claimed to smell alcohol on her even after she blew a 0.00, the same trooper who says she "failed" the field sobriety tests, and the same trooper who charged her with a serious crime - felony DUI - that all the evidence says she didn't commit.
Although she may have pulled out in front of the motorcycle and other evidence may corroborate that, it would be an understatement to say the trooper has lost credibility at this point.
Can the Teacher Be Compensated for The Damage This Has Caused Her?
Can she sue somebody over this?
She will almost certainly be sued for wrongful death and negligence related to the auto/ motorcycle accident.
Can she be compensated herself if the officer lied in his reports and caused her to be arrested for felony DUI when there was no evidence of DUI?
After all, she was accused of a horrible crime that she didn't commit. She was jailed, booked, fingerprinted, humiliated, and had the threat of decades in prison hanging over her head until the case was dismissed.
She was placed on leave from her teaching job, and her professional future is still in question. Her face was plastered on newspapers and broadcast on TV screens under the words "DUI." She was accused of killing a police officer. The charge may have been dropped, but the accusation has caused irreparable damage to this woman's life.
There are cases of SC police and cities being successfully sued for wrongful DUI arrests. For example, a jury awarded $200,075 to a University of South Carolina professor who was falsely charged with DUI. Like the former Teacher of the Year, he registered a BAC of 0.00 on the breath test. Like the former Teacher of the Year, he was arrested anyway by an officer who claimed that he smelled like alcohol.
What potential causes of action does the teacher have against the highway patrol and the state for what she was put through?
- Abuse of process.
- Wrongful arrest.
- False imprisonment.
- Assault and battery (during the arrest - even putting handcuffs on a person is assault and battery if the arrest was unlawful).
- Deprivation of her civil rights (a federal "1983" action).
It appears as if the officer's family will have a negligence and wrongful death claim against the teacher, and the teacher may have a civil rights lawsuit against the trooper and the state of SC.
But, the case is still unfolding. While the felony DUI charge has been dropped, the fatal crash is still being investigated. There could be additional charges, and additional evidence may still be uncovered.
If you have been charged with felony DUI, the DUI defense lawyers at Axelrod and Associates can help. If you are the victim of a motorcycle accident or auto accident in SC, the personal injury lawyers on the Axelrod team are also ready to help you recover full compensation from the at-fault party.