An Oregon man’s overturned DUII conviction is leading to a larger conversation about how intoxication is measured in our state and whether it’s effective.
Back in 2014, John Hedgpeth was riding a motorcycle on the back roads of Coos County when he was pulled over by an Oregon State Police trooper for not wearing a helmet.
Hedgpeth tells FOX 12 it had been blown off by a passing truck a few minutes before he was pulled over.
He admits he did have a beer or two with a friend that day, but maintains he was not intoxicated.
“I wasn’t drunk. Period,” Hedgpeth said over the phone Monday.
But the trooper who pulled him over arrested him for driving under the influence, and when his blood alcohol content was taken nearly two hours later, it was measured at .09 percent.
The legal limit in Oregon is .08.
“I read his report. He wrote down some great observations of what he saw at the time that led to this impairment and his arrest decision,” Oregon State Police Sgt. Yvette Shephard told FOX 12 of the arresting trooper’s notes.
It’s not clear whether those field sobriety notes later made it into Hedgpeth’s court record, but he was ultimately convicted of DUII later that year.
It’s a conviction he’s been fighting ever since.
“It wasn’t right,” Hedgpeth said. “I didn’t deserve to be prosecuted.”
After nearly four years, the Oregon Court of Appeals overturned his conviction on Thursday, writing that there was “minimal evidence presented at trial in this case.”
The court argued that it was possible Hedgpeth’s BAC was .09 while he was actually driving, but it was also possible that it could have been higher or lower depending on the timing of his last drink and whether alcohol was still accumulating or dissipating in his system at the time.
“When performing these field sobriety tests, it’s really not about the number, it’s about how a person performs in the test,” Sgt. Shephard explained.
Shephard is also a DUII training officer, and says the BAC figure doesn’t tell the whole story. Rather, she trains her officers to focus on signs of intoxication.
For instance, can someone walk in a straight line, stand on one leg, or follow an officer’s moving finger with their eyes?
If not – regardless of their BAC – they’re not safe to drive.
“That’s the standard we have to stand by as officers is that, at the time that I stopped him, this is the impairment that I saw and I stand by my decision,” she explained.
Shephard also tells FOX 12 it’s not uncommon for a period of time to pass between arresting a suspected drunk driver and measuring his or her BAC.
That’s because, unlike in Washington state, law enforcement officers in Oregon can’t administer a blood alcohol test at the point of pulling a driver over. Rather, they must bring the suspected driver to the nearest field office or jail for testing, and the timing is intricately liked to geography.
For instance, if someone is pulled over west of Warm Springs, the closest office that can test for blood alcohol is in Sandy, which equates to a drive of roughly an hour and a half.
But that process only happens after an officer has already developed probable cause for drunk driving by administering the series of field sobriety tests.
In this case, Hedgpeth tells FOX 12 he has multiple sclerosis which means he has a difficult time speaking without slurring his speech, and walking in a straight line is out of the question.
He’s happy he won his appeal, but he says it can’t take back what he and his family have been through – or the time and money he spent fighting his conviction.
To read the full decision from the Oregon Court of Appeals, visit: http://www.publications.ojd.state.or.us/docs/A158196.pdf.
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