DUI Caselaw Update: Montes-Valeton v. State

The Glassman Law Blog is officially back in business!  Things have been going great with the firm and I’ve been super busy fighting tooth and nail for my clients. With that being said, I am hoping to be able to do a write-up on a new and interesting case every other week or so from here on out.  As always, these case write-ups are for informational purposes only and should not be considered legal advice.  If you or someone you know find themselves charged with a crime, reach out to the Law Office Of Matthew Glassman, so you’ll have someone fighting for you and your rights!

This week I have decided to write about a recent Florida Supreme Court case – Montes-Valeton v. State, SC14-1672 - as it addresses several interesting issues, including the “fellow-officer rule” and implied consent for testing under Florida Statute 316.1933.  This case also highlights the importance of having a zealous advocate representing you in your defense – Mr. Montes was sentenced to 5 years of incarceration after the trial on his DUI manslaughter charge, however the Florida Supreme Court threw out the conviction and sentence because the trial court had erred in denying Mr. Montes’s motion to suppress.  Had that motion not been drafted and argued, Mr. Montes would still be sitting in prison.

Factual Summary

Mr. Montes was involved in a single vehicle car accident in which a passenger died.  Sergeant Tejera responded to the scene and made observations that led him to believe that Mr. Montes may have been under the influence of alcohol.  He notes that Mr. Montes was "worried, disoriented, confused, and that he emitted an odor of alcohol about his breath."  Soon thereafter, the crash investigation was turned over to Trooper Molina, who ultimately decided to arrest Mr. Montes.   Most importantly, Sergeant Tejera never mentioned his concern of Montes’s impairment to Trooper Molina.  Trooper Molina did not make the same observations. At the Motion to suppress, Trooper Molina testified that he did not notice an odor of alcohol on Mr. Montes and did not recall forming an opinion as to whether Mr. Montes was under the influence of alcohol.  Despite his lack of observation of impairment, Trooper Molina read Mr. Montes the implied consent warnings about refusing a blood draw.  In the State of Florida, if an officer after having probable cause to arrest a subject for DUI, requests that you submit to a drug or alcohol test and you refuse to submit to the test there will be consequences separate and apart from any criminal matter. If it is your first refusal, you will have your driver’s license administratively suspended for 12 months. If it’s your second time refusing, your license will automatically be administratively suspended for 18 months and you will be charged with a First Degree Misdemeanor.  After being read Implied Consent, Mr. Montes ultimately acquiesced to the blood draw. Prior to trial, Mr. Montes’s attorney argued at a Motion to Suppress, that no probable cause existed for the implied consent warnings to be read, and that Mr. Montes’s consent was involuntarily given under threat of a license suspension.  Montes’s attorney was seeking to have the blood draw thrown out. The motion to suppress was denied. The jury heard the blood draw results and rendered a verdict of guilty and Montes was sentenced to 5 years in prison.

Legal Analysis

The first issue that the Florida Supreme Court addressed was whether Trooper Molina had probable cause to believe that Mr. Montes was under the influence of alcohol.  Once a law enforcement officer has established probable cause that an individual is under the influence of alcohol, the officer will request the driver give a blood, breath or urine sample (depending on the circumstances).  The officer will also read the “implied consent” form that explains the consequences if a person fails to agree to the test.  Crucial to the probable cause determination in this case was whether Sergeant Tejera’s observations could be imputed to Trooper Molina based on the “fellow-officer rule”.  This rule essentially states that officers are allowed to rely on the observations of other officers in determining whether probable cause exists.  The Court stated, however, that the officer can only rely on those observations if they were in fact relayed to the arresting officer. In this case, Sergeant Tejera didn’t tell Trooper Molina about his concerns, so Sergeant Tejera’s observations could not be used in determining whether probable cause existed to request the blood draw.  Because Trooper Molina made no observations of his own, there was not probable cause that Mr. Montes was under the influence and thus was not required to give a blood sample pursuant to the implied consent law.

The second issue raised by Mr. Montes’s attorney flows from the first issue: if there was no probable cause to request the blood draw, was Mr. Montes’s consent to the blood draw therefore invalid?  In Florida, the voluntariness of consent is always determined based on the “totality of the circumstances” test.  Essentially, the court will weigh every factor in making a determination as to whether a person freely and voluntarily consented.  Some factors are: (1) the time and place of the encounter; (2) the number of officers present; (3) the officers' words and actions; (4) the age and maturity of the defendant; (5) the defendant's prior contacts with the police; (6) whether the defendant executed a written consent form; (7) whether the defendant was informed that he or she could refuse to give consent; and (8) the length of time the defendant was interrogated before consent was given.  The most important aspect in this particular case was the erroneous implied consent warning.  Mr. Montes was improperly told that his license would be suspended if he did not consent to a blood draw.  The Trooper told Mr. Montes inaccurate information – there could not be any consequences for his refusal because there wasn’t probable cause to require the blood draw. As the Florida Supreme Court succinctly stated “The fact that Trooper Molina improperly threatened Montes-Valeton with the suspension of his driver license for refusing to give consent to the blood draw renders his consent involuntary.”

I hope that you found this case to be interesting and educational. Again, if you or someone you love find themselves arrested for an offense, be sure to reach out to me as soon as possible. I can be reached for a free consultation at 954-908-3399 or via email at matt@matthewglassmanlaw.com.