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Driving while “impaired” by Alcohol in New York

by Seth Azria on 12/02/2015

 New York has one DWI law with 6 sections; each section is a separate charge. The first subsection, called “DWAI”, makes it illegal to operate a motor vehicle while the person's ability to operate such motor vehicle is impaired by the consumption of alcohol. (NY VTL 1192(1)).

But the law does not define what “impaired” means and lawyers attacked that law for being unconstitutionally vague. The highest Court in New York rejected the attack and decided that impairment to any extent on driving from alcohol can support a DWAI charge. So to determine what “impaired” means we must look to the cases.

Laws often have undefined terms that courts must define, one case at a time based on the specific facts of that case. When a court makes a decision, the rule from that case is binding on lower courts for similar cases and is “advice” for courts of the same level.

For example, New York’s highest court is called the “Court of Appeals” and 4 lower courts called Appellate Divisions. All Appellate Divisions must obey a rule from the Court of Appeals but Appellate Divisions may disagree among themselves. Settling these disagreements is part of what the Court of Appeals does.

Impaired: what the “I” in DWAI Means in New York

In the late 1970’s, in the Bronx, a police officer stopped a car for erratic driving. The driver admitted to having a couple of drinks and the officer noted slurred speech, bloodshot and watery eyes, and the odor of alcohol on the driver’s breath. But the driver refused a breath test and so the prosecution had no scientific evidence of intoxication. People v Cruz, 48 NY2d 419 [1979].

The Court of Appeals in Cruz, New York’s highest court, noted that in the past, impairment from alcohol could only be established by scientific proof but that requirement had been eliminated. If the prosecution needed scientific evidence, the driver could defeat the charge simply by refusing the test because driver consent is required to adminster the test. The Court in Cruz ruled the scientific evidence was not essential to prove a DWI or DWAI case.

The lower New York Courts have followed the high court’s ruling. Applying the “impaired to any extent rule, a lower court decided that a police officer’s testimony that the driver eyes were bloodshot, had slurred speech, and testimony that,  in the police officer's opinion, the driver was impaired by alcohol. People v. Lizzio, 178 AD2d 741 [3rd Dept 1991]. Another court decided that testimony that a driver was driving too fast and failed to see a pedestrian was likewise enough to support the DWAI charge. People v Wirtz, 128 AD2d 745 [2nd Dept 1987].

The application of the law to your case can be complicated, in part, because words and phrases used in the law have special meanings. And those meanings can change over time.

It is a bedrock principle in our legal system that like cases should be treated alike. It also true that each case is different and courts may disagree. We invite your calls and emails to schedule a free consultation with one of our defense attorneys to examine your case to determine how your facts are likely to determine the outcome of your case.  




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