John Harvey Hoots, a 55 year old man from Billings, Montana, was sentenced to 30 years in prison for a felony DUI conviction. Hoots was arrested for suspicion of DUI in July 2012, just weeks after he was released from a ten year prison sentence for an earlier DUI conviction. The prosecutor indicated that Hoots had at least ten DUI convictions.
Hoots took his case to trial. According to trial testimony, a neighbor called 911 when Hoots dropped his pants, exposing himself. When police responded, Hoots drove away and was ultimately arrested for DUI. Hoots testified in his own defense, explaining that he fled because the neighbor threatened to shoot him. The neighbor denied making any such threat. Hoots’ blood alcohol level was greater than 0.20.
Under Colorado law, DUI and DWAI are strict liability crimes, which means there is no mental state required to commit the crime. In other words, the driver need not have the specific intent to drive drunk or know that he is drunk when he chooses to drive. The question is simply whether the person charged with DUI or DWAI operated a motor vehicle, regardless of the circumstances surrounding the driving, while he was under the influence or impaired by the consumption of alcohol or drugs or both. One exception to this strict liability is a “choice of evils” defense.
A “choice of evils” defense excuses the commission of the crime if the defendant had no real choice in the matter. Presumably, in Hoots’ DUI trial, his attorney raised some sort of choice of evils defense, arguing that Hoots had to drive away in order to protect himself from being shot by the neighbor. In Colorado, before such a defense can be presented to a jury, the judge must make a preliminary determination that there is sufficient evidence to support the defense. Had Hoots’ DUI trial occurred in Colorado, the presentation of this evidence and eventual conviction for DUI, would mean there was sufficient evidence to satisfy the judge that the defense may be presented to a jury, but that the jury likely did not believe Hoots when he testified that the neighbor threatened to shoot him and/or that, even if Hoots was to be believed, the jury did not believe the facts supported a “choice of evils” defense to the DUI charge.