(CN) - Federal park rangers violated the rights of a suspected drunken driver by misinforming him about the criminal consequences of refusing a sobriety test, the 9th Circuit ruled.
Sean Harrington was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence (DUI) after a federal park ranger observed his car stopped in a nonpublic area of Yosemite National Park on June 10, 2011.
The car's lights were on, and its engine was running. The ranger found Harrington alone in the driver's seat and deemed him inebriated, argumentative and upset.
Harrington refused a field sobriety test and also rejected any test at the police station to determine his blood-alcohol level. The jailer, another federal park ranger, erroneously read the California admonition to Harrington.
It states: "You are required by state law to submit to a [breath test] or other chemical test to determine the alcohol and/or drug content of your blood. ... If you refuse to submit, or fail to complete a test, your driving privilege will be suspended for one year or revoked for two or three years. ... Refusal or failure to complete a test may be used against you in court. Refusal or failure to complete a test will also result in a fine and imprisonment if this arrest results in a conviction of driving under the influence." (Emphasis added in ruling.)
That ranger's supervisor later read Harrington the California admonition twice more.
The 9th Circuit noted Friday, however, how "the federal admonition that the park rangers should have read is illuminating."
"If you refuse to submit to a test, or fail to complete a test, you will be charged with an additional offense for refusing the test, which carries a maximum penalty of 6 months in jail and/or a $5,000 fine," that admonition states (emphasis in ruling). "This charge is in addition to the DUI charge."
Thus while California law criminally sanctions the refusal of a test only if the suspect is later found guilty of DUI, the refusal of a blood alcohol test under federal law "is itself a misdemeanor unrelated to the outcome of any DUI charge," Senior Judge John Noonan wrote for a three-judge panel of the San Francisco-based federal appeals court.
Harrington was never read the federal admonition, however, and his request to speak with a lawyer was denied.
Without ever having taken a breath test, Harrington was arraigned on a six-count misdemeanor federal complaint.
He pleaded guilty to three counts, including an open container violation and possession of marijuana. The government dismissed two counts, including the DUI charge. Only one misdemeanor - refusal to submit to a test to determine blood-alcohol content - went to trial.
A federal magistrate found Harrington guilty of the refusal charge and sentenced him to 36 months of unsupervised probation and 120 days of confinement with 90 days suspended pending probation.
In reversing Friday, the appellate panel said the park rangers had violated Harrington's due process rights.
"In other words, it was fundamentally unfair to convict Harrington on the refusal charge when he was told time and again that his refusal to submit to a blood alcohol test was not in itself a crime, even though it was," Noonan wrote.
The ruling emphasizes that the dropping of Harrington's DUI charge meant that there would have been no further consequences of his refusal to be tested under California law.
"Under federal law, however, the criminal charge for refusal would persist and a sentence of imprisonment could result, as happened in Harrington's case," Noonan wrote. "Had Harrington not been misled as to the consequences of his refusal, he might well have preferred to submit to testing rather than to fight an additional criminal charge."
Noonan added that "the government's interest aligns with Harrington's because federal employees should understand the laws governing the jurisdictions they patrol."
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.