Alaska high court reverses Fairbanks DUI case

Posted: Sunday, August 30, 2009

FAIRBANKS - The Alaska Supreme Court has reversed the drunken driving conviction of a Fairbanks man, saying a state law prohibiting his particular defense is unconstitutional.

The court ordered a new trial for Douglas Valentine, 47, who was convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol in 2005.

Valentine had challenged a state law prohibiting a defense known informally as the Big Gulp defense, where a defendant tries to prove he was less intoxicated while behind the wheel than when taking a chemical breath test afterward.

The Legislature in 2004 barred defendants charged with DUI from presenting this "delayed-absorption" defense claiming that the results of their post-arrest chemical tests didn't accurately indicate their blood alcohol level at the time they were driving.

The high court unanimously ruled Friday that the law denies due process rights to drunken driving defendants.

Defense attorney Robert John said the ruling was a victory for "the application of fairness and science" in the courtroom.

"I just believe this is an important decision for the accused and to have people who are innocent actually be presumed innocent," John told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

Valentine was pulled over for speeding in 2005 by a Fairbanks police sergeant who noticed a moderate odor of alcohol and that Valentine's eyes were watery and bloodshot. Valentine failed three sobriety tests and was placed under arrest, according to court documents.

At the police station, two breath-alcohol tests showed Valentine's level of intoxication had increased. The first showed a blood alcohol level of 0.099 percent, while the second independent test taken 25 minutes later showed a blood alcohol level of 0.119 percent.

Valentine filed a motion to dismiss his case and challenged the 2004 amendments to the state's DUI law. He was convicted by a Fairbanks jury, and the Alaska Court of Appeals upheld the verdict in 2007 by a 2-1 vote.

In a decision written by Chief Justice Dana Fabe, the high court said prohibiting the delayed-absorption evidence gives the prosecution an unfair advantage.

The law "unjustifiably prevents defendants from introducing evidence that is both scientifically valid and directly relevant to the question of whether the defendant was impaired by alcohol at the time of driving," Fabe wrote.

Rep. Jay Ramras, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said the Legislature passed the ban on the Big Gulp defense to discourage people from drinking and speeding off to their destination.

The Fairbanks Republican said his committee will ask for an opinion from Attorney General Dan Sullivan on how to respond. Ramras thinks the ruling may require a procedural adjustment in how DUI cases are prosecuted rather than a statutory change.

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