in the Court of Appeals 25 January 2018.
by Defendant from judgment entered 30 March 2017 by Judge
Gary M. Gavenus in Avery County No. 15 CRS 334 Superior
Attorney General Joshua H. Stein, by Special Deputy Attorney
General Christina S. Hayes, for the State.
Law Office, by Craig M. Cooley, for Defendant-Appellant.
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.
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.
and Procedural History
State's evidence at trial tended to show the following:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 ...