DUI Law in Florida and the Corpus Delicti Rule

 

          The corpus delicti consists of proof that a crime has been committed and that someone is criminally responsible for committing it.  The corpus delicti has to be established in all DUI cases in Florida before the statements of an accused individual can be admitted into evidence at a trial.  

          In some cases, people who would almost certainly be found guilty of committing the crime of driving under the influence are not found guilty because the corpus delicti has not been proved.  For example, in the case of Tina Esler versus the State of Florida,  the appellate court deciding Ms. Esler’s case ruled that her conviction for DUI causing serious bodily injury had to be reversed because the prosecutor failed to prove the corpus delicti before Esler’s confession was admitted into evidence at her trial.

 

          The facts of Esler’s case are as follows:

 

          "On November 2, 2003, in Hillsborough County , Jim Latent was in his wheelchair in the parking lot of an establishment when he was hit by a car that fled the scene. As a result of the crash, Mr. Latent’s leg was broken in three places. At trial he testified that he could not supply a more detailed description of the vehicle other than it was a white car. Mr. Latent testified that he did not see who was driving the car but stated . . . that he had been told by witnesses that the driver was a woman. No other witnesses to the offense testified at trial.

 

          Trooper Helen McCoy testified that on that same day, in Polk County , she was called to the scene of a one-vehicle crash in which a white, four-door Buick had driven through a fence and hit a tree. The trooper approached a woman standing next to an ambulance who was visibly upset and crying. The woman identified herself as Esler. The trooper questioned Esler about the Polk County accident, and . . . Esler admitted that she had been driving the white Buick. Esler was taken into custody for an unrelated offense, and Trooper McCoy transported her to the scene of the Hillsborough County hit-and-run crash.

 

          When Esler arrived at the scene of the Hillsborough County crash, Trooper Ronald Drake was investigating. Trooper Drake testified that Esler appeared to be extremely intoxicated. Esler was questioned and based upon speaking with her and her appearance, the trooper charged her with DUI. The trooper testified that . . . Esler admitted that she had been driving the white Buick that morning and had sped out of the parking lot of the Hillsborough County establishment where the hit and run had occurred. She admitted to the trooper that she had been drinking just prior to the time she exited the parking lot.

 

          At trial, testimony was presented that a white Buick had knocked down a fence and hit a tree in Polk County and there was damage to the front end of that vehicle, mainly on the driver’s side. However, there was no physical evidence connecting any of the damage to the Buick with Mr. Latent or his wheelchair in Hillsborough County . The [prosecutor] did not present any witnesses who observed either the Hillsborough County or the Polk County crash. Other than her [confession], there was no evidence placing Esler behind the wheel of the vehicle involved in the Hillsborough County crash."

 

          In deciding in Esler’s favor, the appellate court stated:

 

1.  There can be no conviction for DUI with serious bodily injury without proof that the defendant was driving a vehicle and was impaired at the time of the crash.

 

2.  There must be proof independent of a confession that the defendant was driving the vehicle involved in the crash in order to make that determination. 

 

3.  The [prosecutor] failed to present the necessary independent proof that Esler was the driver of the vehicle involved in the Hillsborough County crash.

 

4.  Therefore, Esler’s conviction for DUI with serious bodily injury had to be reversed.

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