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Motorcyclist's Illinois DUI Conviction Thrown Out Due to Judge's Improper Answer to Jury Question

A motorcyclist received a reprieve when the Illinois Appellate Court threw out his DUI conviction arising from a fatal crash. The appellate ruling serves as a reminder that, in criminal jury trial cases, a judge's answer to a jury question should clarify legal issues for the jury, but it should not decide the ultimate issue of the case for them.

A motorcyclist received a reprieve when the Illinois Appellate Court threw out his DUI conviction arising from a fatal crash. The appellate ruling serves as a reminder that, in criminal jury trial cases, a judge's answer to a jury question should clarify legal issues for the jury, but it should not decide the ultimate issue of the case for them.

The trial of Dana Hasselbring arose from a crash in Champaign between Hasselbring's motorcycle and the motorcycle of another man, Eddie Piat, which ultimately killed Piat. At the hospital, the police took Hasselbring's blood and urine. Tests results showed that Hasselbring had benzoylecgonine in his system. Benzoylecgonine is one of the substances that cocaine breaks down into when it metabolizes. Based upon this test result, the state charged the man with DUI.

At trial, the state used an expert witness who testified that the test result proved that Hasselbring had taken cocaine roughly 24-28 hours before the accident. The motorcyclist argued that the state had no evidence of DUI, since the test results showed only benzoylecgonine in his system, not cocaine.

After deliberating for 40 minutes, the jury sent a question to the judge asking whether benzoylecgonine qualified as a "substance" for purposes of the language "drug, substance, or intoxicating compound" in the DUI charge. Both the prosecutor and the motorcyclist's attorney suggested that the judge tell the jury that they should rely upon the testimony placed on the record about cocaine metabolism and benzoylecgonine. The judge, however, disagreed and informed the jury that benzoylecgonine did qualify as such a substance. Thirty minutes later, the jury found Hasselbring guilty.

Hasselbring appealed, and the appeals court awarded him a new trial. While a trial judge has a duty to answer questions posed by a jury, the answers a judge gives should not preempt the job of the jury and decide the ultimate issue of the case for a jury. Very possibly, that's what the judge's answer did for the jury in Hasselbring's case. The ultimate issue in the motorcyclist's trial was whether he had any drug, substance, or intoxicating compound in his system as the time of the wreck that resulted from his use of cocaine. At a minimum, the answer may have confused the jury. The trial judge would have been better served, in the opinion of the appeals court, following the suggestion of the prosecutor and defense counsel and instructing the jury to look at the testimony they had before them and use that to determine how they should consider the benzoylecgonine.

Whenever you or a loved one faces a DUI charge, there are many options available, whether before trial or at trial, for strengthening your defense. It is important to work with skilled counsel experienced in handling all aspects of your criminal defense in your DUI case. For clear advice and aggressive representation, consult the experienced DuPage County criminal defense attorneys at Martin & Kent. Our knowledgeable attorneys are here to help you defend your DUI case at every step in the process.

Contact us online or by calling (888) 388-9151 to schedule your confidential initial consultation at no charge.

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