Court Finds Constitutional Violation of Defendant’s Right to Remain Silent in Washington DUI Case

A Washington Court of Appeals recently reviewed a DUI felony conviction in the case of State v. Diaz, No. 46016-5-II (Wash. Ct. App. Oct. 6, 2015), after a jury found the defendant guilty of felony driving under the influence. The defendant’s primary argument on appeal was that his constitutional right to be free from self-incrimination was violated when a police officer testified at trial regarding his post-arrest right to silence. Ultimately, the court agreed that the comments were a constitutional violation but harmless error.

In Diaz, the defendant’s vehicle was found heavily damaged against a telephone pole with the engine still running, late at night. The defendant was observed crawling out of a ditch nearby, missing a shoe, and bearing marks on his body allegedly consistent with injuries caused by a seatbelt and airbag. The shoe was later found on the driver’s side floorboard. When the defendant refused a breath test, the police transported him to a hospital where, pursuant to a search warrant, a blood sample was taken, indicating that the defendant’s blood alcohol level was over the legal limit. The only element in dispute at the trial was whether the defendant was the driver of the vehicle.

The Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that no person shall “be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.” This provision is applied to states through the Fourteenth Amendment, and the Washington State Constitution also shares an equivalent right. In Washington, a defendant’s constitutional right to silence applies in both pre- and post-arrest situations. In the post-arrest context, it is a violation of due process for the State to comment upon or otherwise exploit a defendant’s exercise of his right to remain silent. In addition, it is constitutional error for a police witness to testify that a defendant refused to speak to him or her, since the State may not use a defendant’s constitutionally permitted silence as substantive evidence of guilt.

At trial, the police officer testified that the defendant would not talk to him about anything, and the defendant wasn’t cooperating when the police asked him questions. On appeal, the court agreed that the officer’s testimony that the defendant “didn’t want to talk to [him] about anything” was a constitutional violation of the defendant’s right to remain silent. Having found a constitutional error, the court next considered whether or not the error was harmless. An appellate court will only find that a constitutional error is harmless if it is convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that any reasonable jury would have reached the same result absent the error, and the untainted evidence is so overwhelming it necessarily leads to a finding of guilt. If the court finds that the error is not harmless, the defendant will have the right to a new trial.

In deciding that the error was harmless, the court noted that the prosecution did not rely on the officer’s testimony in the closing argument but instead the circumstantial evidence that pointed to the defendant as the driver. The court concluded by finding that the overwhelming evidence of the defendant’s guilt was such that any reasonable jury would have convicted him of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt, even had there been no improper comment on the defendant’s right to remain silent. Accordingly, the decision was upheld.

You have the right to seek legal representation from a criminal defense attorney if you have been arrested or charged with a DUI. At Blair & Kim, PLLC, our experienced DUI attorneys provide knowledgeable, aggressive defense for clients charged with criminal offenses in Washington. To discuss your case with one of our experienced attorneys, contact our office at (206) 622-6562 or through our website.

More Blog Posts:

Washington Court Holds That Defendant’s Previous Conviction Elevates DUI to Felony Charge, Seattle Attorneys Blog, published September 15, 2015

Washington Supreme Court Holding Limits Protection of Rule 3.1 in DUI Case, Seattle Attorneys Blog, published October 9, 2015

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