The U.S. Supreme Court's ruling Tuesday that a driver's refusal to take a sobriety test may be introduced as evidence of guilt means that the District of Columbia will be able to continue enforcing its tough drunk-driving law, officials said yesterday.
There will be no immediate impact in Maryland or Virginia, officials in those jurisdictions reported, but the ruling could lead to changes in legislation.
The Supreme Court Tuesday overturned a South Dakota court ruling that the introduction of a defendant's refusal to submit to a sobriety test was tantamount to forcing him to testify against himself, and thus was a violation of Fifth Amendment rights.
South Dakota law was unclear whether prosecutors were allowed to make such submissions. District of Columbia laws were stiffened last September to allow prosecutors here to do the same thing. In Virginia and Maryland, however, prosecutors are barred by law from introducing evidence on such refusals, and thus the Supreme Court decision does not affect those states, officials said yesterday.
Under Maryland, D.C. and Virginia law, results of sobriety tests are routinely used as court evidence in drunk-driving cases and are major factors in obtaining convictions, prosecutors said.
However, many defendants refuse to take the sobriety test, and juries who do not hear about such refusals generally give the defendant the benefit of the doubt, prosecutors said.
Until the city's drunk-driving laws were changed, providing stiffer penalties for drunk driving as well as allowing the introduction of evidence on refusal to take a sobriety test, juries often concluded that because there were no results from a sobriety test, there was insufficient evidence to convict a defendant, prosecutors said.
Since the new law went into effect in the District, the number of people refusing to take the sobriety test has dropped dramatically, from roughly one-third of the people arrested for drunk driving to 14 percent, officials said.
In Richmond yesterday, Virginia Del. Mary Sue Terry (D-Patrick), chairwoman of the Governor's Task Force to Combat Drunk Driving, said she would ask the legislature to study the Supreme Court ruling and consider changing Virginia's law to allow prosecutors to introduce as evidence a defendant's refusal to take a sobriety test.
Similarly, the chairman of the Maryland State's Attorneys Association's legislative committee, Frank Weathersbee, said an attempt might be made next year to draft a new law in Annapolis.