Closing the Loophole: Shea's Law and DWI Blood Draws in New York State under Vehicle and Traffic Law (Section) 1194(4)(a)(1)

Article excerpt

Every year in New York State, drunk drivers are responsible for approximately 9000 accidents and 400 deaths. (1) On July 13, 2010, New York State took another step to reduce this troublesome statistic with the passage of "Shea's Law." (2) This legislation, which amends the New York State Vehicle and Traffic Law, expands the list of medical personnel who can withdraw blood from a drunk driver without a doctor's supervision, (3) and further marks the closing of a "legal loophole which enabled indisputably impaired drivers to evade prosecution." (4)

The source of this "loophole" was former section 1194(4)(a)(1)(i) of the New York State Vehicle and Traffic Law. (5) Under the former statute, a DWI blood draw, performed to test a drunk driver's blood alcohol level, was admissible into evidence only if it was performed in a certain manner by statutorily-enumerated medical professionals. (6) This former statute led to various instances of drunk drivers escaping prosecution because, although blood was drawn in a safe and reasonable manner by a medical professional, the blood draw was not performed specifically according to the statute. (7) The best known example of this was People v. Reynolds, (8) where former Olympic gold medalist Jack Shea, the name-sake of the new bill, (9) was killed by a drunk driver who would completely escape prosecution due to the blood draw. (10)

Shea's Law has been pending in the New York State Legislature in various forms since 2006. (11) The bill's recent passage has been lauded as "a commonsense measure," (12) and a "simple and straightforward remedy" (13) in New York's fight against drunk driving. (14)

The first section of this comment gives the background and history of drunk driving legislation in New York State. The second section tells the story of Jack Shea and other victims of the loophole which existed in former section 1194(4)(a)(1). The third section outlines and analyzes the problems that accompanied former section 1194(4)(a)(1), including both the Court of Appeals interpretation of the statute and the statute's conflicts with other New York statutes and regulations. The fourth section examines the public policy behind DWI legislation, and that policy's impact on judicial decision-making in New York and other states. The final section examines and analyzes the amended section 1194(4)(a)(i) under Shea's Law.

I. DWI LEGISLATION IN NEW YORK STATE

New York State has a long and distinguished history of developing legislation and programs to improve highway safety, specifically regarding DWI prosecution. (15) The first DWI law in the nation originated in New York State in 1890--section 158 of the former Highway Law--which provided: "No person owning any carriage for the [conveyance] of passengers, running or traveling upon any highway or road, shall employ, or continue in employment, any person to drive such carriage, who is addicted to drunkeness, or to the excessive use of spiritous liquor...." (16)

Additionally, in 1910 the first "modern" DWI statute was passed in New York State, enforcing drunk driving rules against those operating cars with motors. (17) More than a half-century later, New York passed legislation allowing prosecutors to introduce evidence of alcohol in the blood stream for DWIs. (18) This was the first of many chemical testing laws from a legislature that "has clearly expressed its interest in promoting the goal of public safety by enacting legislation providing for compulsory chemical tests to facilitate the prosecution of intoxicated or impaired drivers whose actions result in serious injury or death." (19)

Perhaps the most visible legislation in New York's battle against drunk driving was the "STOP-DWI" (20) program, introduced in 1981, which made it lucrative for the counties of New York State to engage in and prosecute alcohol-related driving offenses. (21)

These ongoing efforts have positively impacted the safety of New York's highways. …