Drunk Driving Operation Can be Proven by Driver’s Admission to Police

The Michigan Court of Appeals has recently held that a driver’s admission to drinking too much and trying to drive from the bar were admissible against her to establish the element of operation.

As prosecutors often say in their opening/closing arguments, a crime is made up of parts called elements. In order to prove a case, a prosecutor must be able to prove each element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. In a drunk driving case, one of those necessary elements is operation. Usually, an element can’t be proved just by the defendant’s admission. This is called the “corpus delicti rule.”

According to David Moritz, an assistant professor at Wayne State University Law School: the common law corpus delicti rule prohibits the introduction of an extrajudicial confession in a criminal case unless the prosecution introduces independent evidence of the “corpus delicti.” That is, the prosecution must introduce some evidence independent of the confession to establish that the crime described in the confession actually occurred.

In this particular unpublished case, People v. Livingston, the basic facts established that someone called 911 about a person who was “passed out” in a vehicle which was parked near a bar. When the police officer arrived they found that the defendant was in the front passenger seat, the vehicle was running, and the driver’s door was open. Upon questioning, the defendant admitted that she “had too much to drink” specifically admitted that she “had a total of six drinks and that she had started drinking earlier in the morning.” She also said she had started driving home from a bar because her friends had not given her a ride, but that she had pulled over because she was tired.

The defense attorney raised the corpus delicti rule at the district court, but was not successful. On appeal, the circuit court reversed, so the prosecutor appealed to the Court of Appeals, who reversed. The Appeals court found that because the statements relative to operation were “statements of fact” rather than confessions, and accordingly, they could properly be used to establish the element of operation.

There are a couple of things that are noteworthy about this case. First, every case is different, and even a slight change in the facts can lead to a different result. Also, there are many three judge panels, and a different panel of judges may have ruled differently. Finally, even when a case like this is lost on appeal, it can still be tried, and won, before a jury. Often a jury will look at a case like this and acquit simply because they believe the defendant did the right thing by deciding not to drive.

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