Very few DUI cases find their way to the United States Supreme Court. Generally DUI cases are a matter of state law and over the years, the Supreme Court has been fairly deferential to the arguments put forth by lawyers representing the government and police departments. Obviously everyone supports the goal of removing impaired drivers from the road, and groups like MADD have done a good job in keeping political pressure on lawmakers to make DUI punishments harsher.
Nevertheless, the law does not treat every DUI defendant the same way because some DUI offenders are more culpable than others. Further, the law requires that the prosecutor prove his case. It is not enough that the police officer “thought” that an individual was under the influence – there needs to be proof, which can include blood test, breath tests and other types of evidence.
Recently, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case of Begay v. United States, a decision which was released in April, 2008. In the Begay case, the defendant (Begay) was arrested in New Mexico for unlawfully possessing a firearm, a violation of federal law. Mr. Begay was a convicted felon and thus was not permitted to possess a gun.
Following a trial, the federal judge hearing the case sentenced Mr. Begay to 15 years under the Armed Career Criminal Act, which mandates a 15 year sentence to a felon who is convicted of possessing a firearm and who has three or more convictions for “violent felonies.” The violent felonies relied up on by the judge were Mr. Begay’s 12 DUI convictions.
Clearly, Mr. Begay is not a sympathetic defendant. However, the law requires three or more convictions for violent felonies. The Supreme Court held that DUIs are not violent felonies because a DUI is usually not an intentioal act to hurt another person, and because the examples of violent felonies set out in the Armed Career Criminal Act were of a substantially different nature than a DUI.
Does this mean that Mr. Begay is not a dangerous person or that he should not be incarcerated? No. It does mean that he should not be convicted of a crime when his conduct does not equal the conduct procsribed in the statute.