Louisiana Supreme Court Upholds Drunk Driver’s Hard Labor Sentence Even Though Jury Had Only Six Members

The_Jury_by_John_MorganThe Louisiana Supreme Court recently upheld a driver’s conviction and sentence to 25 years of hard labor for DWI, fourth offense, even though the jury in the driver’s trial consisted of only six people. The high court’s decision clarified that, in situations like this, when the driver’s mandatory hard labor sentence only arose from a multiple-offender sentencing enhancement, and the crime charged on the original indictment contained a range of possible sentences both with or without hard labor, the trial court’s empaneling of a six-person jury was not an error and did not require giving the driver a new trial.

The events leading up to this decision started with a traffic stop in Bogalusa in 2011. A state trooper pulled over a pickup truck that had been weaving erratically down the road. The driver, Gerald Dahlem, smelled of alcohol, slurred his speech, and displayed glassy, bloodshot eyes. A blood alcohol level test revealed that Dahlem’s BAC was .180.

In January 2012, the state charged Dahlem with DWI, fourth offense, to which the driver pled not guilty. Three months later, the trial began with a jury consisting of six jurors. Neither side objected to the six-person jury nor requested a 12-person jury. The jury ultimately found Dahlem guilty, and the driver received a sentence of 25 years of hard labor.

On appeal, for the first time, the driver objected to the six-person jury that rendered his verdict. Since his case involved a felony that, if he was convicted, required hard labor as a sentence, the law required a 12-person jury, and using a six-person jury denied him his right to a fair trial. The appeals court, in upholding the trial court’s action, determined that using a six-person jury was improper, but Dahlem, by not bringing up the issue until his appeal, waited too long to contest the jury makeup in his case.

The Supreme Court also upheld the conviction and sentence in Dahlem’s case, but it did so for different reasons from the appeals court. The Supreme Court’s ruling clarified that the Washington Parish trial court’s use of the six-person jury was not a procedural error at all. When looking at a case like Dahlem’s, and a challenge like this, the “Bill of Information” is very important. That bill is a document that lays out in detail the precise charges that the accused person faces. The bill in Dahlem’s case accused him of DWI, fourth offense, in violation of La. R.S. 14:98. The sentencing parameters for that crime, contained in La. R.S. 14:98(E)(1)(a), stated that a driver convicted of DWI, fourth offense, could receive a prison sentence of 10-30 years with or without hard labor.

In Dahlem’s case, a sentencing enhancement led to his receiving 25 years of hard labor. However, nothing on the bill of information document gave the trial judge any indication that such an enhanced sentence was a possibility, and the court determined that trial judges should not be required to investigate beyond the specifics of the bill of information document itself. “[W]e specifically decline to create a duty requiring a trial judge to look beyond the face of the bill of information or the indictment.”

In DWI cases, especially those that involve allegations of repeat offenses, the potential punishments can be severe. It is extremely important to retain experienced counsel to help you defend your rights. The hardworking Louisiana DWI attorneys at the Cardone Law Firm have a long track record of helping people accused of DWI in mounting a vigorous defense to the fullest extent that the law allows.

For your confidential consultation, contact us online or phone Cardone at 1-888-89-CARDONE (1-888-892-2736).

More Blog Posts:

Private Citizens Making DWI Traffic Stops in Louisiana, Louisiana Injury Lawyers Blog, Feb. 3, 2016

Challenging Your DWI Sentence in Louisiana, Louisiana Injury Lawyers Blog, March 27, 2015