Washington State Supreme Court issues favorable ruling for Defense in State v. Quaale

On December 18, 2014 the Washington State Supreme Court finally issued a ruling in State v. Quaale. I apologize for my late review of this case, as it is very important to DUI case law here in Washington State. But I was out of town. Here is a quick run down of the case and how it impacts Seattle DUI arrests.

The Washington State Court found “the arresting trooper in this DUI (driving under the influence) trial testified that he had “no doubt” that the defendant was impaired based solely on a horizontal gaze nystagmus (HGN) test. We hold that the testimony was an improper opinion on guilt and affirm the Court of Appeals.”

Here are the facts that led to this ruling.

Quaale was charged with attempting to elude a police vehicle and with felony DUI. The DUI was charged as a felony because Quaale had been previously convicted of vehicular homicide while under the influence. RCW 46.61.502(6)(b)(i).

Quaale was tried twice. At the first trial, the jury convicted him of attempting to elude but could not agree on a verdict for the DUI charge. During a second trial on the DUI charge, the State concluded its direct examination of Trooper Stone with the following questions:

Q. In this case, based on the HGN test alone, did you form an opinion based on your training and experience as to whether or not Mr. Quaale’s ability to operate a motor vehicle was impaired.

Q. ․ Did you form an opinion?

A. Absolutely. There was no doubt he was impaired.

In closing, the State argued that the odor of intoxicants and Quaale’s erratic driving supported its theory of driving while impaired by alcohol, but the State primarily relied on the HGN test. During its rebuttal, in response to the defense explanation for the odor of intoxicants, the State said, “The horizontal gaze nystagmus is not caused by alcohol that he may have spilled on his clothes; it is what is inside your body. The eyes in this case are more than the window to the soul; they are the window to his intoxication level.”

In its holding the Court held this testimony was improper for two reasons. First, the trooper cast his testimony in a way that gave it an aura of scientific certainty. By testifying that he had “no doubt,” the trooper implied that the HGN test may reveal that someone is intoxicated and “impaired” on alcohol when the test simply shows physical signs consistent with alcohol consumption. Although an officer may testify that the test revealed signs consistent with alcohol consumption, the officer here cast his conclusion in absolute terms and improperly gave the appearance that the HGN test may produce scientifically certain results. Secondly, the trooper testified to a specific level of intoxication when he testified that the defendant was “impaired.” Thus implying the defendant was actually over the legal limit.

As a practicing Seattle DUI Attorney this was an important case that many fellow Attorneys had been watching closely. More and more it seems our constitutional rights are being eroded especially when it comes to DUI related cases. It almost seems some of the higher courts are making DUI related issues more prosecution and law enforcement friendly in an effort to curb drinking and driving. Which in my opinion is a slippery slope. On one hand drinking and driving should not be condoned, but taking away rights and creating more prosecutor friendly issues to increase DUI convictions is not the way to go.

About the author: Matthew Leyba is a DUI Lawyer in Seattle. He is the owner of Leyba Defense PLLC, a DUI law firm located in Seattle, WA.