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State v. Lopez

Court of Common Pleas of Delaware

November 6, 2019

THE STATE OF DELAWARE,
v.
JASO R. LOPEZ, Defendant

          Submitted July 12, 2019

          Julie L. Johnson, Esq., Deputy Attorney General

          Michael R. Ahram, Esq., Attorney for Defendant

          DECISION AFTER TRIAL

          ROSEMARY BETTS BEAUREGARD, JUDGE.

         On December 18, 2018, the Defendant, Jaso R. Lopez (Lopez), was charged with a violation of Failure to Have Two Lighted Lamps Displayed, 21 Del. C. § 4352(a), a violation of Failure to Have License in Possession, 21 Del. C. § 2721(b), and a violation of Driving Under the Influence, 21 Del. C. § 4177(a).

         The Court conducted a bench trial on these charges on May 21, 2019. At the conclusion of the evidence, Lopez argued that the blood results were not admissible because the State had failed to lay the proper foundation in establishing a sufficient chain of custody. The Court found Lopez GUILTY of violating 21 Del. C. § 4352(a), NOT GUILTY of violating 21 Del. C. § 2721(b), and reserved decision as to the violation of 21 Del. C. § 4177(a). The Court afforded the parties an opportunity to brief their arguments as to whether or not the State had laid the proper foundation for the admissibility of the blood results in this case. After reviewing the relevant case law, [1] the State conceded that it did not properly establish the chain of custody and therefore the blood test results were inadmissible. The State therefore proceeded on an impairment theory. After reviewing the evidence, considering the credibility of the State's witnesses, and reviewing counsels' submissions, the Court finds Lopez NOT GUILTY of violating 21 Del. C. § 4177(a). The Court finds that the State did not meet its burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that Lopez was under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs while operating his motor vehicle.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Lopez filed a Motion to Suppress alleging that the Officer did not have reasonable articulable suspicion to stop Lopez's vehicle and that the Officer did not have probable cause to arrest Lopez. At the beginning of the suppression hearing, Lopez waived the argument of no reasonable articulable suspicion but continued with the argument that the Officer did not have probable cause.[2]

         Suppression Hearing Facts

         On December 17, 2018, at approximately 11:59 p.m., while conducting a proactive patrol, Corporal Petrella's attention was drawn to Lopez's vehicle due to the right headlight being out. Based on this observation he maintained sight of the vehicle and pulled Lopez over in the area of State Route 1 Northbound and Wolfe Neck Road in Rehoboth Beach. Lopez appropriately pulled over and stopped his vehicle. As Corporal Petrella approached Lopez's vehicle he smelled a strong odor of marijuana emanating from the vehicle. Corporal Petrella's initial observations of Lopez were: 1) he was slow and sluggish in his movement and speech, 2) he had bloodshot, glassy eyes, 3) his pupils were dilated, and 4) he was polite. Corporal Petrella inquired about the odor of marijuana that was coming from the vehicle and Lopez responded that he smoked marijuana in his car with friends between the times of 7:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. while attending a Christmas Party. Lopez also admitted to drinking an orange crush, an alcoholic beverage, at the party. Corporal Petrella then asked Lopez to perform field sobriety tests which Lopez agreed to do.[3]

         Lopez was first instructed to perform the Alphabet test and was asked to say the alphabet from E to P. Lopez reasonably performed this task but left out the letter E. The next test was the Number test with the instruction to count backwards from 59 to 42. Lopez sequentially counted backwards but he left out numbers 59 and 42. Before Corporal Petrella moved onto the physical tests, Lopez informed him that he had issues with his knees from a prior surgery but thought that he could still perform the tests. On the Walk-and-Turn Test Corporal Petrella observed that Lopez raised his arms during some of the steps, stepped offline slightly, and did not turn in the proper direction. He did however walk the correct amount of steps. On the One Leg Stand test Lopez lost his balance several times and did not fully complete the test. The State attempted to introduce evidence regarding the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN) test, the Vertical Gaze Nystagmus (VGN) test, the Lack of Convergence test, and the Modified Rhomberg Balance test but was unable to do so.[4] Lastly Lopez was asked to blow into a PBT. The Officer did not testify whether the result was a pass or fail.

         Based on Lopez's physical appearance, Lopez's performance on the field tests, and his admission to smoking marijuana four hours earlier that evening, Corporal Petrella believed he was under the influence of a drug while operating a motor vehicle. Corporal Petrella mirandized Lopez when they arrived at Troop 7. Lopez told Corporal Petrella that he was willing to answer any further questions and reiterated that he smoked marijuana in his car with friends four hours earlier that evening and that he drank one orange crush at the Christmas party. Corporal Petrella then completed a blood search warrant which was approved. A phlebotomist from Seascape Health Alliance LLC, responded to Troop 7 to conduct a blood draw[5]

         The State called its second witness, Jessica Smith, the Chief Forensics Toxicologist Laboratory Manager at the Division of Forensic Science for the state of Delaware. As previously stated, the State conceded ...


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