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What is a crash? Florida courts debate the definition in a DUI case

The Leon County, Florida, Circuit Courthouse exterior
The Leon County, Florida, Circuit Courthouse is seen in this image from 2022. It is the site of a drunken-driving trial expected to resume Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023.

Florida law requires that a crime must occur within the presence of police for warrantless misdemeanor arrests. A traffic crash is a legal exception to the law. As a result, whether the incident fit the legal definition of a crash became the primary issue in a court case.

A pickup flipped in a ditch in Tallahassee in the early morning hours. Booze inside. The driver reeked of alcohol, with bloodshot eyes, slurred his words and fumbled about. He stumbled as a police officer explained the 12-step sobriety walking test. Then he wobbled off the line five times and demanded a cigarette.

All the makings of a drunken driving arrest? Maybe not.

A little-noticed, years-long court battle over the single-vehicle accident that could have broad implications in a state where more than 1,000 people were killed by impaired drivers last year enters a crucial phase this week. A state prosecutor and defense lawyer are set to clash in a case that hinged over something that seemed a no-brainer: What is a car “crash”?

“We take DUIs, especially with crashes, seriously, even if they're misdemeanors, because while they're victimless to some extent, they can become very sad, bad victim crimes,” said Anne Callaway Scott, a former prosecutor in the case.

Here’s what happened, and why this case could be so important:

Damien McCartha, who was 25 at the time, was arrested on misdemeanor DUI charges in September 2019 in Tallahassee after driving his Toyota pickup into a ditch. When police responded after 1 a.m, they found the vehicle rolled over with its driver’s side in the ditch and its passenger side up in the air, according to court filings.

The officer who initially responded contacted another officer, a drug recognition expert, after observing McCartha slurring his words and fumbling with his wallet to retrieve his driver’s license. McCartha was questioned by the expert after waiving his rights and agreed to field sobriety tests, in which he performed very poorly, according to the arrest records.

“For a defense attorney, if you said, ‘Hey, it's not a crash to flip your car,’ I’d go through and find all my flipped car cases and say, ‘You got to dismiss it.’ ”
Anne Callaway Scott, a former prosecutor in the case

At one point, McCartha refused to do any additional sobriety tests until he was allowed to have a cigarette. The officer said no.

A cup with cinnamon-flavored alcohol and a miniature liquor bottle of cinnamon whiskey were found in the vehicle after it was towed away. He was later arrested, and his blood alcohol level was measured 0.191, more than twice Florida’s legal limit.

McCartha told police he had been at a pool hall, had two beers and got sideswiped on the way home, causing the accident.

A coworker took a message for McCartha at his auto repair business and said McCartha would return the call Monday. He did not.

McCartha’s attorneys asked the judge in 2021 to throw out any evidence gathered during and after his arrest on the basis that neither officer had seen McCartha in or driving the vehicle, arguing that the warrantless misdemeanor arrest was invalid.

Florida law requires that a crime must occur within the presence of police for warrantless misdemeanor arrests. A traffic crash — with provable elements that include “breaking to pieces” or “a coming together of solid or direct impact” — is a legal exception to the law. As a result, whether the incident fit the legal definition of a crash became the primary issue.

Head shot of Monique Richardson in her judge's gown
Second Judicial Circuit
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Fresh Take Florida
Leon County, Florida, Judge Monique Richardson is seen in this undated photograph provided by the 2nd Judicial Circuit of Florida. Richardson was the trial judge whose ruling was overturned in an important drunken-driving case that prosecutors said could have undermined similar DUI cases across Florida. The appeals court reversed her ruling in the trial, expected to resume Oct. 18, 2023.

Leon County Judge Monique Richardson approved the motion to suppress the evidence, ruling that the accident did not constitute a crash. The judge hinted that officers — and even a documentary camera crew that was at the scene — didn’t record enough video of damage to the pickup from the scene to convince her that a crash happened.

“Frankly, I think if Live PD had kept their clip going a little longer, and we could see if some damage had occurred on the other side, or if officers had taken photos of the side that hit the ground there, there may have been some damage to get us to a crash,” she said. “But I cannot find under that definition that a crash occurred.”

Prosecutors appealed.

Now a higher court has kicked the case back to the trial judge. A three-judge panel for Florida’s 1st District Court of Appeals ruled unanimously last month the incident was indeed a crash and overturned the defense’s motion. The panel said, citing rulings in other cases, that the accident constituted a crash because McCartha’s vehicle had collided with other objects, damaging the road and the ditch in which it came to rest, and because the pickup had sustained damage to a headlight.

“The undisputed testimony was that the truck’s headlight was damaged,” the court wrote. “As a result, appellee’s truck was involved in a crash under the plain meaning of the term.” It added: “Driving through or into a ditch with no damage or impact on the operation of the vehicle may not be a crash. But a vehicle coming to rest upside down in a ditch must have had solid or direct impact with the ditch, meeting the definition of collide.”

The case now heads back for a retrial in Leon County before Richardson, with the evidence gathered during and after the arrest admissible in court. The first hearing is set for Wednesday in Tallahassee.

One of McCartha’s attorneys who was involved in the appeals process, public defender Tyler Payne, did not return a phone message Friday.

“If there is damage, injury, death, or results from a criminal offense (leaving the scene of a crash, DUI, etc.) then a crash has occurred, and Florida statutes require an investigation and report to be completed.”
Larry Coggins, the Florida regional executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving

The prosecutor previously on the case, Scott, said that while misdemeanors don’t get appealed often due to time and resources, this case was important enough due to its potential implications.

“Based on his level of intoxication, how bad the crash was and then just kind of my complete disagreement with what the ruling was, we thought it was important,” she said.

She said that if the motion to suppress the evidence hadn’t been overturned, it could have led to that defense argument being used in more DUI cases.

“For a defense attorney, if you said, ‘Hey, it's not a crash to flip your car,’ I’d go through and find all my flipped car cases and say, ‘You got to dismiss it,’ ” said Scott, who will not be a member of the prosecution team during the retrial. It will now be prosecuted by Jasmine Adams, who declined to comment.

Larry Coggins, the Florida regional executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, a prominent advocacy group, said, “Simply put, a crash is a crash.”

“Whether the vehicle collides with another vehicle or other fixed object, becomes submerged in water, strikes a pedestrian or bicyclist, or results from a lane departure and rolls over,” said Coggins, a former member of the Florida Highway Patrol with first-hand experience in DUI cases. “If there is damage, injury, death, or results from a criminal offense (leaving the scene of a crash, DUI, etc.) then a crash has occurred, and Florida statutes require an investigation and report to be completed.”

Coggins said over 1,100 people were killed by impaired drivers in Florida last year.

“I’d like to say that the real story here are these folks that we represent,” he said. “If everyone would simply designate a sober driver or call a taxi or rideshare, this issue would disappear, and Florida would be a much safer place.”

This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at silas.morgan@ufl.edu.

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