Beyond a Reasonable Dog: Reasonable Doubt and Driving Dogs

There’s a news story making the rounds this weekend where a man accused of DUI told the police that his dog was driving the car. This will probably be filed under the “dumb criminal” memes popular in your grandmother’s chain emails and twitter, but it’s also a useful illustration of the concept of how “reasonable doubt” works in criminal cases.

If the man goes on trial for DUI will the prosecutor be able to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that he was driving while under the influence of alcohol?

Just the facts:

First we need to look at the facts. The news story doesn’t say whether or not anyone actually saw the man driving – just that the police found the man, acting drunk at a store, with his dog locked inside his car. When the police interviewed him, he claimed his dog drove him to the store. So let’s assume the police don’t have a witness who saw the man, not his dog, driving the car.

To prove a person guilty of DUI, the prosecutor has to prove three things:

  1. The person was driving or was in actual control of a vehicle;
  2. While under the influence of alcohol or drugs;
  3. To the extend that the person’s normal faculties were impaired.

So in this scenario the question is this: can the prosecutor prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the man was driving or in actual control of the vehicle?

Not so common sense: 

What does your common sense tell you? Of course the man was driving! How else could he have gotten to the store with his car and his dog? You really expect me to believe that the dog drove him?

Let’s look at what the law says “reasonable doubt” means:

A reasonable doubt is not a mere possible doubt, a speculative, imaginary or forced doubt. Such a doubt must not influence you to return a verdict of not guilty if you have an abiding conviction of guilt. On the other hand, if, after carefully considering, comparing and weighing all the evidence, there is not an abiding conviction of guilt, or, if, having a conviction, it is one which is not stable but one which wavers and vacillates, then the charge is not proved beyond every reasonable doubt and you must find the defendant not guilty because the doubt is reasonable.

It is to the evidence introduced in this trial, and to it alone, that you are to look for that proof.

A reasonable doubt as to the guilt of the defendant may arise from the evidence, conflict in the evidence, or the lack of evidence.

If you have a reasonable doubt, you should find the defendant not guilty. If you have no reasonable doubt, you should find the defendant guilty. (Florida Standard Jury Instructions for Criminal Cases: 3.7)

So reasonable doubt is more complicated than “just using your common sense”. To prove the crime of DUI the prosecutor has to prove “beyond every reasonable doubt” that the man, not the dog, was driving.

But dogs can’t drive cars, right? The jury’s going to laugh this guy out of the courtroom…I mean come on …

I for one welcome our new canine overlords. But in all seriousness, the prosecution has a very high burden in getting a guilty verdict even in the most ridiculous-sounding crimes. It’s important to remember this in all criminal cases. A defense attorney’s job is often not to prove his or her client’s innocence, but to hold the prosecutor to this burden.