As a Georgia drunk driving accident lawyer, I regularly use police reports and court records to show that my clients were hurt by drivers who were legally drunk at the time of the accident. As with many states, Georgia offers law enforcement two ways to determine whether someone is driving under the influence of alcohol. One is the driver’s blood-alcohol concentration measurement. If a driver is at or above the 0.08% legal limit, he or she is presumed impaired “per se.” However, Georgia drivers can also be charged with DUI if an officer believes they were “less safe” drivers because of alcohol, drugs or both. This does not require a chemical test, but can be based on field sobriety tests, reckless driving or other behavior by the driver. Either charge can lead to a Georgia DUI conviction and liability in any Atlanta intoxicated driving accident lawsuit.
That’s why I was surprised to see that the chairman of the county commission for Carroll County, Georgia, in Metro Atlanta, was allowed to drive home after a breath test putting him just under the legal limit. According to a July 15 article from the Times-Georgian of Carroll County, Bill Chappell was pulled over at a roadblock in unincorporated Carroll County late in the evening of July 9. A video of the stop shoes Chappell had trouble performing field sobriety tests, including following a flashlight with his eyes, walking a line and standing on one leg. However, a breath test showed Chappell had a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.071%, less than 0.01% under the limit. Rather than arrest him, the officer let him drive home, a distance of less than two miles, and followed to ensure that he arrived safely.
The newspaper made a video of the traffic stop available here.
According to the newspaper, Chappell told the officer he was returning home from a regional development council meeting in Meriwether County. After the meeting, he said, he had one drink, then stopped by a convenience store for a Diet Coke on the way home. The officer asked Chappell for the exact time when he had the drink, but the videotape is silent during his answer, which a spokesman for the Sheriff’s Department said could be an attempt to protect private medical information. The spokesman also said the medications Chappell named at the stop would not have affected his ability to drive. The spokesman attributed the problems with the field sobriety tests to Chappell’s age, weight and health problems, and said the trooper did not feel Chappell was “over the influence.” Nonetheless, he followed Chappell home.
The “less safe” standard allows law enforcement officers to use their discretion in cases where a chemical test is unavailable or inconclusive. That may be what happened in this case. However, because Chappell is an important person in local politics, the decision to let him go will almost inevitably be criticized as politically motivated. I do not know whether that was the case, and I do not care to speculate. But as a Gwinnett County, Georgia car accident attorney, I do know that driving under the influence causes very serious accidents. Drunk driving causes wrongful deaths and catastrophic personal injuries, including severe burns and brain damage that can leave victims disabled for the rest of their lives. For that reason alone, I hope the officer making this judgment call truly felt that Chappell was safe to drive.