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State v. Eldred

Court of Appeals of North Carolina

May 1, 2018


          Heard in the Court of Appeals 25 January 2018.

          Appeal by Defendant from judgment entered 30 March 2017 by Judge Gary M. Gavenus in Avery County No. 15 CRS 334 Superior Court.

          Attorney General Joshua H. Stein, by Special Deputy Attorney General Christina S. Hayes, for the State.

          Cooley Law Office, by Craig M. Cooley, for Defendant-Appellant.

          INMAN, Judge.

         One hundred feet of tire impressions veer off a highway, past a scuffed boulder, and end at a damaged, unoccupied vehicle whose registered owner is found walking along the same highway disoriented and unsteady on his feet. He admits that he is "smoked up on meth" and that he wrecked the vehicle "a couple of hours" earlier. Most anyone would surmise what happened, and might very well be right. But because the law prohibits imposing criminal liability based on conjecture, gaps in the evidence and controlling precedent require that we reverse Defendant's conviction for driving while impaired.

         Paul Eldred ("Defendant") appeals from a judgment following a jury verdict finding him guilty of driving while impaired ("DWI"). Defendant argues that the trial court erred in denying his motion to dismiss because the State failed to present evidence that his admitted impairment began before or during the time he was operating his vehicle. After careful review, we agree.

         Factual and Procedural History

         The State's evidence at trial tended to show the following:

         On 30 October 2015, between 8:20 and 8:30 p.m., law enforcement officers in Avery County received a radio communication of a reported motor vehicle accident on Highway 221 north of the intersection with Highway 105. Avery County Sheriff's Deputy Timothy Clawson ("Deputy Clawson") and State Highway Patrol Trooper J.D. Boone ("Trooper Boone") found a Jeep Cherokee stopped on the right shoulder of the highway. The vehicle was facing north, in the same direction as the right lane of travel, toward Grandfather Mountain. The vehicle's right side panel was damaged. Officers observed approximately 100 feet of tire impressions on the grass leading from the highway to the stopped vehicle. The first ten feet of the impressions led from the highway to a large rock embankment that appeared scuffed. Beyond the embankment, the impressions continued to where the vehicle was stopped. No one was in the vehicle or at the scene.

         Deputy Clawson searched for information based on the vehicle's license plate and learned that the registered owner was Defendant. He then left the accident scene and drove on Highway 221 looking for the missing driver. Two or three miles north of the accident scene, he saw a man walking on the left side of Highway 221 and stopped to question the man, later identified as Defendant. Deputy Clawson noticed a mark on Defendant's forehead and observed that he was twitching and seemed unsteady on his feet. Asked his name, Defendant replied, "Paul." Asked what he was doing walking along the highway, Defendant replied, "I don't know, I'm too smoked up on meth." Deputy Clawson handcuffed Defendant for safety purposes and asked if he was in pain. Defendant said that he was, and Deputy Clawson called for medical help.

         Deputy Clawson did not ask Defendant how he came to be in pain. Deputy Clawson did not ask Defendant about his admitted illegal activity or attempt to determine whether Defendant was impaired by a substance or as a result of the accident. Deputy Clawson instead focused on Defendant's medical wellbeing. When emergency medical personnel arrived, Deputy Clawson removed the handcuffs and allowed Defendant to leave in an ambulance.

         Trooper Boone traveled from the accident scene to Cannon Hospital, where he learned Defendant had been taken by ambulance. He found Defendant in a hospital room at approximately 9:55 p.m. and explained he was investigating the reported accident. Answering Trooper Boone's questions, Defendant confirmed that he had been driving his vehicle and said it had run out of gas. Defendant then said that "he was hurt bad and was involved in a wreck a couple of hours ago." Asked if he had been drinking alcohol, Defendant said no. Asked if he had taken any medications, Defendant "said he was on meth." Trooper Boone did not ask Defendant or medical personnel whether Defendant had been given any pain medication in the ambulance or in the hospital.

         Trooper Boone observed that Defendant was twitching, appeared dazed, took several seconds to form words in response to questions, and shouted his answers to questions. Defendant said he was "messed up" and unable to perform any sobriety tests. Defendant did not know the date, the day of the week, or the time. Trooper Boone formed the opinion that Defendant had consumed a sufficient amount of an impairing substance to appreciably impair his mental and physical faculties. Trooper Boone then informed Defendant that he would be charged with driving while impaired and advised Defendant of his Miranda rights. After Defendant confirmed that he understood his rights, Trooper Boone asked further questions. Defendant again said that he had run out of gas while driving from Banner Elk. Defendant said he "was just driving" and did not have a destination. Defendant did not recall which highway he had been on or what city he was in. Trooper Boone did not ask Defendant ...

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