Do BAC Limits Discriminate Against Alcoholics?
A Texas man who was convicted of a fourth DUI claimed that blood alcohol content limits discriminate against alcoholics.
Ralph Alfred Friesenhahn of San Antonio was convicted of his fourth DUI in 2016 and was sentenced to four years in prison after he rolled his vehicle outside of San Antonio, Texas. A later blood test revealed that Friesenhahn’s blood alcohol content was 0.29 percent, more than three times the legal limit of 0.08 percent.
Although some states are considering lowering the legal limit to 0.05 percent, all states currently have a limit of 0.08 percent.
At trial, Friesenhahn’s attorney motioned the court to dismiss the indictment against Friesenhahn arguing that the state’s legal limit discriminated against alcoholics. Not surprisingly, the judge denied the request and Friesenhahn was convicted of felony driving while intoxicated, the Texas equivalent to California’s “driving under the influence,” and was sentenced to four years in prison due to his prior convictions.
Friesenhahn’s attorney appealed the conviction, once again arguing that the state’s blood alcohol content limit of 0.08 percent discriminated against alcoholics in violation of the right to equal protection guaranteed under the United States Constitution and Texas Constitution. Specifically, she argued that the legal limit ignored the “protected class of alcoholics,” who have a high tolerance to alcohol, to be prosecuted for DUI charges when there is no indication that the alcohol impaired their ability to safely drive a vehicle even though they might be over the legal limit.
Sammy McCrary, chief of the felony division for the Comal County District Attorney’s Office argued that it’s absurd to suggest that the law treats alcoholics differently.
“You’re not being punished for being an alcoholic. It’s the driving that’s the problem,” McCrary said. “It’s making the decision to get into a 3,000-pound vehicle … after drinking.”
The Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals agreed with McCrary with an opinion issued last week.
In denying that Friesenhahn and other alcoholics fall within a “protected class,” the court said that Texas law “provides two alternative definitions of intoxication. The first involves the loss of the normal use of mental or physical faculties; the second involves an alcohol concentration of at least 0.08…The alternative definitions are presented disjunctively…indicating that only one must be satisfied to establish that a person is legally intoxicated. Further, these alternative definitions apply to all persons charged with an intoxication offense…Thus, the alcohol concentration definition of intoxicated allows for a finding of intoxication based on an alcohol concentration of 0.08 or more without showing the loss of mental or physical faculties – whether the defendant is an alcoholic or not. Therefore, there is no classification in the statute that treats any persons, including [Friesenhahn’s] defined ‘class’ of alcoholics, differently than similarly situated persons: the 0.08 alcohol concentration level applies to all offenders prosecuted for DWI.”
In short, the court said that since the law treats all persons equally, there can be no violation of equal protection.
Let Friesenhahn’s case serve as a reminder that, while you may not be “impaired” when driving your vehicle, as long as you’re over the legal limit of 0.08 percent blood alcohol content, you’re putting yourself at risk of a DUI arrest, charge, and possible conviction.