On May 22, 2014, the Georgia Court of Appeals decided the Flading v. State [i], in which they decided the issue of whether a stipulation to plead guilty in a criminal DUI case in exchange for the dismissal of an administrative license suspension was validly admissible in the criminal case. The relevant facts of Flading, taken directly from the case, are as follows:
[T]he record reflects that on July 11, 2009, Officer Joshua Ott of the Roswell police department observed a black Lincoln Mark LT turn right onto Canton Street. He noted that the vehicle crossed halfway across the double yellow line before drifting back to the right and crossing the white line. While following the vehicle, Officer Ott observed several other instances of slow weaving before he activated his emergency lights and made a traffic stop. When Officer Ott approached the vehicle to speak with Flading, the driver of the vehicle, he immediately detected a “moderate” odor of alcohol emanating from inside the vehicle. He also observed that Flading’s eyes were “glassy and droopy.” Flading admitted that he had consumed two or three beers that evening.
Officer Ott then asked Flading to step to the rear of his vehicle to perform a field sobriety evaluation. At that time, the officer was able to confirm that the odor of alcohol was coming directly from Flading. Officer Ott, who testified at trial regarding his extensive DUI training, first performed the horizontal gaze nystagmus evaluation, and Flading exhibited four out of six clues, indicating that he was driving while under the influence of alcohol and was less safe in doing so. Because Flading told him that he had broken his ribs two weeks ago and he could not say whether it would affect his ability to walk a straight line or stand on one foot, Officer Ott elected to forego those additional field sobriety tests. He then asked Flading to recite the alphabet from the letter E to R. Flading started at E, but continued all the way to T before pausing for several seconds and then stating “R.” And finally, the officer performed a preliminary breath test which registered positive for the presence of alcohol.
Based upon his driving, physical manifestations, and the field sobriety evaluations, Officer Ott placed Flading under arrest for driving under the influence of alcohol. He then read to Flading from his copy of the Georgia Implied Consent Notice card, which was admitted into evidence. Flading refused to consent to a state-administered chemical test of his breath. At trial, the State also admitted into evidence a copy of the officer’s video that was recorded from the time he first observed Flading’s vehicle until after he was arrested, which was played for the jury. The State also introduced, over objection, a document entitled “Final Decision” completed at an administrative license suspension hearing (“ALS hearing”). Officer Ott explained that he was present at the ALS hearing and spoke with Sarah Hoffman, an attorney who represented Flading at that time and agreed that, in exchange for pleading guilty to the DUI charge, Flading would be permitted to keep his license. The Final Decision, which was signed by Officer Ott and Hoffman, was read to the jury in part, including the following:
This withdrawal is based on an agreement between the arresting officer and [Flading]. In exchange for the arresting officer’s withdrawal of this sworn report, [Flading] shall enter a plea of guilty to the underlying charge of violating O.C.G.A. § 40-6-391. The parties agree that a copy of this final decision may be admitted into any subsequent legal proceeding involving the charge as an admission by [Flading] of [Flading’s] guilt or nolo contendere in exchange for the rescission of the administrative license suspension. The parties further agree that if [Flading] fails to enter the required plea, this order may be voided and the sworn report refiled with the [Department of Driver Services].
The evidence presented at trial was sufficient to authorize a rational trier of fact to find Flading guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of the crimes for which he was convicted. [ii]
On appeal, Flading contends that the trial court committed error when it allowed the State to introduce the Final Decision from the ALS hearing into evidence at trial.
Flading’s first argument in support of his appeal is that Georgia courts have a history of prohibiting the introduction of evidence from ALS hearings. However, the court of appeals noted that none of the cases cited by Flading are directly on point to his case. Specifically, the court stated that Flading has cited no cases that involve the issue of whether a stipulation reached during an ALS hearing can be introduced in a criminal trial. Further, since Flading did not claim fraud or mistake as to the stipulation made at the ALS hearing, and since Flading had an opportunity to repudiate his attorney’s authority to make that stipulation, the court viewed the stipulation as admissible in the criminal trial.
Flading’s second argument was that the stipulation at the ALS hearing should not be admissible in the criminal case because it is extremely suggestive and prejudicial. As to this argument, the court stated that, according to the new rule in Georgia, which mirrors Federal Rule of Evidence 401, any evidence that has a tendency “to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more probable than it would be without the evidence” is admissible. [iii] Flading argued that OCGA 24-4-403, which mirrors Federal Rule of Evidence Rule 403 should exclude the stipulation. This statute states:
[r]elevant evidence may be excluded if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, or misleading the jury or by considerations of undue delay, waste of time, or needless presentation of cumulative evidence. [iv]
However, the court stated that the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals has described Rule 403 as “an extraordinary remedy which the courts should invoke sparingly, and the balance should be struck in favor of admissibility.” [v] The court further stated that the purpose of this rule is to exclude cumulative evidence that is being offered for a prejudicial effect.
The court then held that the probative value of the ALS stipulation was not outweighed by its prejudicial effect; therefore it was properly admissible.
Note: Court holdings can vary significantly between jurisdictions. As such, it is advisable to seek the advice of a local prosecutor or legal adviser regarding questions on specific cases. This article is not intended to constitute legal advice on a specific case.
[i] A14A0557 (Ga. App. Decided May 22, 2014)
[iii] Id. (citing OCGA 24-4-401)
[iv] Id. (quoting OCGA 24-4-403)