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Drunk Driving Defense Requires Competent Experts

If your life has been suddenly disrupted by a Michigan drunk driving arrest, then be sure to hire a DUI lawyer specialist who also has access to the Nation’s top DUI experts.

The reason this is so important is that a Michigan drunk driving arrest will nearly always involve scientific evidence such as a breath or blood test.  When death or serious injury is involved, additional expertise in traffic reconstruction is necessary. Retaining a lawyer who understands this evidence is essential, and so is a lawyer who knows how to find and use appropriately qualified expert witnesses.

A new United States Supreme Court case involves just these issues[i].  Here the Court took up a case involving the interplay between the requirements for effective assistance of counsel and the necessity to hire expert witnesses – just as with any Michigan drunk driving case.

The case involved a murder occurring during an after-hours robbery of a restaurant.  There was similar robbery at another restaurant, which also involved a shooting.  A total of six .38 caliber bullets were retrieved from both crime scenes.  A .38 caliber revolver was found at the suspect Hinton’s home, and the prosecutor sought to link Hinton to both murders.  The revolver and six bullets were the only physical evidence.  Thus, the state’s case turned on whether the prosecutor’s expert witnesses could match the gun to the bullets found.

The category of forensic evidence at issue in this case is “firearms and toolmark” evidence. Toolmark examiners attempt to determine whether a bullet recovered from a crime scene was fired from a particular gun by comparing microscopic markings (toolmarks) on the recovered bullet to the markings on a bullet known to have been fired from that gun.

Recognizing that Hinton’s defense called for an effective rebuttal of the State’s expert witnesses, Hinton’s attorney filed a motion for funding to hire an expert witness of his own. In this case, Hinton’s lawyer was appointed, and therefore, moved the court for payment of expert witness fees.  The court misread the law, and assumed the most that could be awarded was $1,000.00.  Hinton’s lawyer therefore had a very limited abilty to retain a competent expert(s), and failed to research the law adequately enough to determine he could have obtained more money.  Furthermore, Hinton’s lawyer knew that the expert he did retain was inadequate. Hinton’s attorney also recognized that Payne was not a good expert, at least with respect to toolmark evidence.  He felt he was “stuck” with him due to lack of funds.

The Court reasoned that: “criminal cases will arise where the only reasonable and available defense strategy requires consultation with experts or introduction of expert evidence.”[ii]

In this case Hinton’s attorney knew that he needed more funding to present an effective defense, yet he failed to make even the cursory investigation of the state statute providing for defense funding for indigent defendants that would have revealed to him that he could receive reim­bursement not just for $1,000 but for “any expenses rea­sonably incurred.” An attorney’s ignorance of a point of law that is fundamental to his case combined with his failure to perform basic research on that point is a quin­tessential example of unreasonable performance under the prevailing standard[iii].

Specifically, the court held that the failure of Hinton’s lawyer to seek additional funds to hire, as a replacement for an expert whom he knew to be inadequate was constitutionally insufficient. The Court therefore summarily vacated the judgment below and remanded the case for reconsideration of whether the attorney’s deficient performance was prejudicial.

This concern for lack of obtaining additional funds to retain qualified expert assistance was based on the Court’s recognition that “the testimony of expert forensic witnesses has a powerful impact on jurors.”  Thus, courts must be absolutely vigilant in ensuring that defendants receive effective assistance and they must steadfastly guard against the admission of unreliable scientific evidence.”

In handling any drunk driving case be sure that you have obtained and consulted with the best available Michgian DUI defense specialist. A few of the common areas where the use of experts can assist the accused in a drunk driving case include infrared spectroscopy, gas chromatography, mass spectroscopy, accident reconstruction and field sobriety testing.

[i] Hinton v. Alabama, 571 U. S. ____ (2014)

[ii] Harrington v.  Richter, 562 U. S. ___, ___ (2011) (slip op., at 16).

[iii] Strickland v. Washington, 466 U. S. 668 (1984)

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Patrick Barone

Patrick Barone

Patrick T. Barone is the Founding Partner and CEO of The Barone Defense Firm with offices throughout Michigan. Mr. Barone is the author of two books on DUI defense including Michigan DUI Law: A Citizen's Guide and the well respected two volume treatise Defending Drinking Drivers (James Publishing),a chapter in Defending DUI Vehicular Homicide Cases, 2012 ed. (Aspatore Books), an adjunct professor at the Thomas M. Cooley Law School, and a graduate of the Gerry Spence Trial Lawyer’s College. Mr. Barone has an “AV” rating from Martindale-Hubbell and since 2009 has been included in America’s Best Lawyers.

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