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A recent Oregon Supreme Court ruling has created a new defense for intoxicated drivers that could complicate prosecution efforts statewide.
The decision originated from a Multnomah County Circuit Court ruling in which Portland resident James Robert Newman was convicted of DUII (driving under the influence of intoxicants).
“He said he was drinking with his friends, and his friends gave him a ride home and then he sleep drove,” said Deena Ryerson, DUII Resource Prosecutor for the State of Oregon. “He got up, and he wasn’t aware of the fact he got up and went and drove.”
Newman argued that he was sleep driving at the time of the incident and was not responsible for his actions. The Multnomah County Circuit Court disagreed. He appealed the decision, and the case made it all the way to the Oregon Supreme Court, where the original ruling was overturned. Justices unanimously ruled that “sleep driving” can be allowed as a defense against DUII.
Ryerson explained that the Supreme Court reached their decision based upon statutes within both the vehicle code, which applies to vehicular offenses including DUII, and the criminal code.
“In the Oregon criminal code, there is a statute that basically says to commit a crime, there needs to be a voluntary act,” she said. “The whole discussion turned on whether that applies to crimes in the vehicle code.”
The court determined that the need for a voluntary act should apply to DUII offenses, so they then examined what a voluntary act means. Justices concluded that a suspect cannot act voluntarily if their self-awareness is grossly impaired or absent.
So far, the ruling has not changed the approach of local law enforcement, but it does create some uncertainty going forward. Crook County Sheriff Jim Hensley sees the ruling potentially complicating DUII cases and adding another layer to the investigation process.
“When they (deputies) arrest someone, it is based on their training and experience that they believe that person to be under the influence,” he said. “It’s kind of a scary thought — now you have got somebody sleep driving that is intoxicated.”
Prineville Police Chief Eric Bush said he is waiting for further direction from the Crook County District Attorney’s Office before they consider modifying the investigative approach.
“It may or may not go beyond what we already do,” he said. “We do our very best to rule out any mitigating issues related to driving under the influence of intoxicants. We try to completely understand the situation with an individual when we do the investigations.”
Regarding sleep driving, Bush said that symptoms of sleep deprivation are often similar to those of intoxication — but officers can usually tell the difference.
“Our techniques in detecting people who are actually under the influence — usually, you very quickly rule out sleep deprivation.”
At this point, it could be a while before the State formally addresses the ruling. Ryerson said that the Department of Justice has considered asking the legislature to act on the ruling, but other than that, no other action has been taken.
“We pretty much need to take it day-by-day,” she said. “For the prosecutors, it will be case-by-case.”