Corpus Delicti in Florida DUI Cases – Bribiesca-Tafolla v. State

In Bribiesca-Tafolla v. State, the Fourth District Court of Appeal explains that prosecutors in a Florida DUI case must prove “the body of the case” before entering any evidence regarding the defendant’s admission that he or she committed the crime.

Appellant Jose Bribiesca-Tafolla was convicted on two counts of driving under the influence causing serious bodily injury. The accident that led to his arrest occurred shortly after seven in the morning on US 1 in Jupiter, Florida. Appellant was traveling southbound in a truck with a friend when the truck crossed into the northbound lane and struck an oncoming car. The truck flipped, ejecting Appellant and his friend, and then struck a third car.

A police officer who met with Appellant at the hospital where he was being treated for his injuries testified at the trial that Appellant admitted that he was driving the truck at the time of the accident. According to the court, the officer testified that Appellant “appeared to be impaired based on his bloodshot eyes [and] the odor of an alcoholic beverage on his breath…” A blood test showed that his blood alcohol level was .13 – more than the legal limit of .08 – five hours after the accident.

On appeal, Appellant argued that the officer should not have been permitted to testify about Appellant’s admission because the state had not yet established corpus delicti: that a DUI crime was committed. Specifically, Appellant argued that prosecutors could not establish that he was driving without the officer’s testimony.

“Corpus delicti means literally `the body of the crime,’” the court explained. “Before a confession is admitted the state has the burden of proving by substantial evidence that a crime was committed,” it noted, citing the Florida Supreme Court’s 1976 decision in State v. Allen. Such proof may be in the form of either direct or circumstantial evidence.

Since the State presented no evidence indicating that Appellant’s friend was drunk at the time of the accident, it necessarily had to provide sufficient evidence that Appellant was driving the car in order show corpus delicti and present the admission evidence in this case, the court ruled.

The court found that the State met its burden based on circumstantial evidence: Appellant was driving the truck when he left his house about five hours before the accident; his course of travel was consistent with where he told his wife he was going before leaving the house; and the truck was registered to Appellant’s wife. Although the Fifth District found spousal vehicle registration insufficient to prove corpus delicti in State v. Hepburn, the court here ruled that it weighed in favor of proving corpus delicti in the present case. Furthermore, the court noted that while each individual piece of evidence may not be sufficient in and of itself to prove corpus delicti, they were sufficient in the aggregate.

As a result, the court affirmed the conviction.

As this case shows, the fines and penalties for driving under the influence are severe: you could be fined thousands of dollars and ordered to pay even more in restitution in addition to having your driver’s license revoked and spending months or even years in prison. The South Florida criminal defense attorneys at Anidjar & Levine are experienced in handling DUI cases and have consistently provided high quality representation to clients all over Florida, including in Fort Lauderdale, Boca Raton and Pompano Beach.

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