A Champaign County trial judge’s improper response to deliberating jurors prompted an Illinois appellate court to reverse one defendant’s aggravated DUI conviction recently.
Mr. Hasselbring, 31, was charged after cocaine metabolites were found in his blood following a motorcycle accident killing his friend, a Mr. Piat, age 26. Piat died in November 2010 from head trauma sustained during the September 2010 accident. Hasselbring’s motorcycle collided with Piat’s motorcycle in Champaign as the men headed a band of motorcyclists heading east on Kirby Road.
On June 2011, defendant was charged with aggravated DUI, a felony, due to the cocaine metabolites found in his system. Judge John Kennedy presided over Hasselbring’s jury trial and sentenced him to 11 years in prison.
Approximately 40 minutes into deliberations, the jurors asked the judge whether cocaine metabolite qualifies as a substance under the jury instructions. Both attorneys urged Judge Kennedy to tell the jurors to rely on trial testimony.
Kennedy ignored their requests, characterizing the jury’s question as neither factual nor pertaining to the review of the evidence. He believed the jury merely sought a legal definition, to which he planned to reply, “yes, cocaine metabolite qualifies as a drug, substance or intoxicating compound[….]”
Hasselbring’s attorney objected, telling Judge Kennedy: “You might as well just convict him right now yourself.” He argued that because it’s the state’s burden to prove the charges, it was the state’s job to offer evidence regarding the drug’s classification. The defense attorney objected that the judge would be preempting the jury’s decision on the ultimate issue of whether cocaine metabolite qualified as a drug.
The Fourth District Appellate Court agreed, explaining that while the judge has a duty to answer the jury’s questions if clarification is requested, “a judge should not answer a question from a jury that calls for the judge to make a conclusion on the issues at trial.” In this case, the ultimate issue was whether Hasselbring had any amount of a drug, substance, or compound in his blood resulting from his unlawful use of cocaine. The court found Judge Kennedy’s unequivocal response that cocaine metabolite qualifies as a drug to be inaccurate, inconsistent with the evidence, and essentially directed a verdict for the state. “[D]oing so resolved the ultimate issue for the jury.”
The appellate court found that Judge Kennedy should have instead adopted the parties’ suggested response and instructed the jury to rely on evidence presented during trial. Accordingly, the court reversed the defendant’s conviction and remanded for a new trial.
If you have been charged with a DUI crime in Illinois, it is crucial to speak to an experienced Illinois DUI, DWI, or drunk driving lawyer as soon as possible. Harvatin Law Offices, PC provides knowledgeable representation for those in Springfield and throughout Illinois. We have considerable experience defending individuals charged with DUI offenses. To learn more and to set up a free initial consultation, contact us online or call us toll-free at 1-800-829-8513.
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