In Nebraska, the penalties for driving under the influence of alcohol are severe and may have consequences with long time impact. Being charged with any criminal offense can affect a person’s family, career and life, so it is important to understand how someone’s past – even if it was many years ago – can play a role in the current conviction.
Prior convictions in relation to sentence enhancements
When sentencing a DUI offender, courts will look for previous DUI convictions to determine whether a harsher punishment is proper. Any form of authenticated record for prior convictions, that may be relevant to the current sentencing, may be looked at.
Most commonly, this record takes the form of a court-certified copy of prior convictions. If prior convictions are applicable to the current charge, the charge may be “enhanced,” resulting in a harsher sentence. Sentence enhancements allow judges to increase a defendant’s sentence beyond the normal range prescribed by statute.
To determine whether previous charges can be applied, the court often considers the following:
- time since the previous conviction,
- the validity of the prior conviction, and
- differences between states’ laws.
Relevant prior convictions are brought to the sentencing judge’s attention at the enhancement hearing. This hearing occurs only if the defendant has plead guilty or been found guilty by the court. At the hearing, the prosecutor will present a copy of prior convictions. Essentially, this is a list of all prior convictions the prosecutor believes are relevant to the current sentencing. In Nebraska, the prosecution can only bring forward convictions which occurred within the 15-year period prior to the current offense.
Challenging the validity of prior convictions
Some states, however, have shorter windows of time for past convictions to be considered. Based on the materials provided, the defendant can argue that the prior convictions are distinguishable from or inapplicable to the current charge.
In some circumstances, a defendant can challenge the validity of the prior conviction(s). For example, a defendant could argue that he or she was not properly informed of their rights and therefore the charge should not be applicable for enhancement purposes.
Defendants can also challenge a prior conviction’s applicability when that conviction arises from a similar but differently-worded statute from a different state. In these instances, the defense attorney will try to distinguish the two statutes from one another so that the defendants subsequent charge will not be enhanced, as was the case in State v. Mitchell and State v. Garcia.
State v. Mitchell
In State v. Mitchell, the defendant was charged with a DUI in Nebraska, and had been previously convicted of a DWAI (Driving While Ability Impaired) in Colorado under CO Rev. Stat. 42-4-1301. This law, which did not exist in Nebraska, applied when the suspect had a BAC between .05 and .08, resulting in an impairment “to the slightest degree.”
The Supreme Court of Nebraska found that because Nebraska’s DUI law required a defendant to be impaired “to an appreciable degree,” prior Colorado DWAI convictions could not enhance a DUI sentence in Nebraska. For the defendant in Mitchell, his Colorado DWAI was disregarded, and he received a sentence based solely on his Nebraska conviction.
State v. Garcia
In State v. Garcia, the prosecution attempted to enhance a Nebraska DUI charge based on a prior DUI conviction in California. The defendant contended that because the California DUI law differs from the Nebraska DUI law, the California conviction should not result in an enhancement of his DUI charge in Nebraska. The California law made driving under the influence illegal anywhere in the state.
However, Nebraska DUI law applies only to highways or private property open to public access. The Court did not find this distinction substantial enough to disregard the California DUIs. The defendant failed to meet his burden of showing that his offenses in California would have fallen outside of the scope of the Nebraska DUI statute. The Court enhanced the defendant’s charge to a third-offense DUI in Nebraska, subject to harsher punishment under Neb. Rev. Stat. 60-6, 197.03.