It’s possible that hundreds of driving under the influence convictions in Richmond County could be challenged, but any likely success is questionable, according to legal experts.
The issue arose earlier this year when attorney John R.B. Long filed a civil lawsuit challenging the legality of clerks issuing search warrants for Richmond County Sheriff deputies to obtain involuntary blood samples from suspected DUI drivers. Richmond County State Court Solicitor Omeeka Loggins, who inherited most of these cases when she became solicitor this year, decided Dec. 7 to no longer use the blood test results as evidence in pending DUI cases instead of fighting the issue.
Since the practice began 2015 in response to a Georgia Supreme Court ruling, about 1,000 blood samples had been taken because of clerk-issued search warrants. About 600 of those cases already ended with pleas.
“You can always ask for reconsidering on withdrawing a plea within the term of court (about four months),” said defense attorney Keith Johnson. But for any older case, the request would be at the judge’s discretion, he said. If the judge says “no”, it can be appealed to the Georgia Court of Appeals, but you would have to show that you were not negligent in not discovering the issue before pleading guilty, Johnson said.
“I thought about that,” defense attorney William Sussman said. It would probably be difficult to withdraw a plea because at the time it was entered, the clerk-issued search warrants were presumed to be legal, he said. “It’s worth a try,” but the cost of legal fees might make it less so, Sussman said.
Loggins said her concern is with doing the right thing and keep the cases moving. If she had contested the civil case, DUI cases would have been backed up at least for months and likely for years. That’s why she decided blood alcohol content results from clerk-issued search warrants will no longer be used as evidence.
But with no court ruling on the legality of the clerk-issued search warrants, a judge would have to rule on the issue if someone challenges a conviction, Loggins said.
In cases now in which officers believe they need search warrants for involuntary blood draws, they go to a judge, said Richmond County Sheriff Maj. Steve Strickland.
People suspected of DUI can still be prosecuted even if a suspect refuses to voluntarily give a blood sample and no search warrant is obtained, Strickland said. There are the officer’s observations, video of the suspect during the traffic stop, and field sobriety tests to be used as evidence.
Officers will request search warrants for blood draws if there is an injury or a felony offense is involved in the stop, Strickland said.
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