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Reado-Seck v. State

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Fourth Division

June 19, 2018

READO-SECK
v.
THE STATE.

          DILLARD, C. J., DOYLE, P. J., and MERCIER, J.

          DILLARD, CHIEF JUDGE.

         Following a trial by jury, Cathy Marie Reado-Seck was convicted of first-degree vehicular homicide and driving under the influence to the extent she was a less-safe driver. Reado-Seck appeals from her convictions, arguing that her trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance by failing to object to improper testimony regarding a correlation between clues of impairment on the horizontal gaze nystagmus field sobriety test ("HGN test") and specific numeric blood alcohol concentration levels. For the reasons set forth infra, we remand this case to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         Viewed in the light most favorable to the jury's verdict, [1] the record shows that in the early morning hours of March 16, 2014, Reado-Seck was driving a BMW SUV on Lawrenceville Highway in DeKalb County when she approached an intersection from the opposite direction of the victim, who was operating a motorcycle. Reado-Seck attempted to slowly make a U-turn on a green signal and, as she did so, failed to yield to the oncoming victim, resulting in a low speed impact collision. The victim crashed to the ground after hitting the side of the SUV, and Reado-Seck attempted to move her car out of the road prior to checking on the victim, but she was stopped by another motorist who witnessed the accident. The victim was then transported to a hospital in critical condition, but he later perished due to an aortic laceration from the sudden impact.

         Prior to the collision, the eyewitness initially observed the victim traveling behind him on the motorcycle (the headlight of which was operational), and he recalled that the victim stayed within the lane and drove about 10 miles per hour faster than he was traveling when passing the witness on the roadway before the accident occurred. This witness also testified that he initially thought the victim was intoxicated because he first saw the motorcycle leave a bar, but he later changed his mind because nothing about the victim's driving made him believe that he was intoxicated, concerned him, or made him fear for his safety. And an investigating officer who reconstructed the accident concluded that "the motorcycle had zero contributing factors to the crash."

         As for Reado-Seck, when law enforcement arrived, an investigating officer detected the odor of an alcoholic beverage on her breath. And after initially denying that she had been drinking alcohol, Reado-Seck informed the officer that she had consumed an alcoholic beverage some twelve hours prior to the accident. But Reado-Seck later changed her story, telling another officer that she had recently consumed an alcoholic beverage at a friend's house; that she was driving home, but tried to go back to her friend's house when she realized that she "couldn't make it home"; and that she did not see the victim before making the U-turn. That same officer testified that Reado-Seck appeared "upset" and "a little confused."

         An officer decided to administer field-sobriety tests to Reado-Seck, during which she exhibited six out of six clues of impairment on the HGN test and had such difficulty maintaining her balance during the instructional portion of the walk-and- turn test that she did not complete it.[2] A preliminary breath test was also positive for the presence of alcohol, and Reado-Seck's eyes appeared bloodshot and watery. Ultimately, the officer at the scene reached the conclusion, based on her training and experience, that Reado-Seck was impaired and that her impairment contributed to the collision. Shortly thereafter, Reado-Seck was placed under arrest. Reado-Seck then provided a urine sample, but refused to allow her blood to be drawn for testing. Approximately two hours after the accident, however, Reado-Seck voluntarily blew a .069 and .070 on an Intoxilyzer test.

         Hearing this evidence, the jury found Reado-Seck guilty of first-degree vehicular homicide and driving under the influence to the extent she was a less-safe driver. She now appeals from these convictions, following the trial court's denial of her motion for new trial.[3]

         Reado-Seck raises the argument of ineffective assistance of counsel for the first time on appeal, but the State concedes that this was her earliest practicable opportunity to do so.[4] In general, when an appeal presents the earliest practicable opportunity to raise an ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim, we will remand the case to the trial court for an evidentiary hearing on the issue, [5] which is what Reado-Seck asks that we do. But the State also correctly notes that "[r]emand is not mandated if we can determine from the record that the defendant cannot establish ineffective assistance of counsel[.]"[6] In this regard, under the two-prong test of Strickland v. Washington, [7] a defendant must show that trial counsel's performance was "professionally deficient, and but for counsel's unprofessional errors, there exists a reasonable probability that the outcome of the proceeding would have been more favorable."[8]

         Here, Reado-Seck takes issue with her trial counsel's failure to object to testimony by a law-enforcement officer who administered the HGN test at the scene, observed six out of six clues of impairment, and opined that, based upon her training, a person who exhibits six out of six clues would "not only have a visual impairment present, but their . . . blood/alcohol concentration would be at or above a .10."

         The officer was qualified, without objection, as an expert in DUI investigations and detecting impaired drivers. She then explained how the HGN test is conducted and evaluated, including that there are six clues of impairment. She offered, in response to the State's question as to how many clues she would expect to see on an impaired driver, that, "[a]ccording to the [National Highway Transportation Safety Administration] curriculum, four out of six clues on each exam would indicate that a person is not only impaired, but their blood/alcohol concentration would be at or above a .08." The officer then described her administration of the HGN test to Reado-Seck, who exhibited six out of six clues of impairment. The State then asked the officer if exhibiting six out of six clues of impairment told her anything, to which she responded as follows:

Yes. Based on my NHTSA training, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, it indicates to me that a person who exhibits six out of six clues would not only have a visual impairment present, but their BAC or blood/alcohol concentration would be at or above a .10.

         The officer did not describe what her training in this regard entailed or discuss any scientific studies that support the conclusion of a correlation between the six clues of impairment and blood alcohol concentration levels. But Reado-Seck did not object to the testimony, and the officer went on to describe her attempt at the administration of the other field-sobriety tests.

         Reado-Seck argues that the foregoing testimony was improper because no foundation was laid to support the officer's conclusions, as required by Harper v.State.[9] In Harper, our Supreme Court held that a trial judge may "decide whether the procedure or technique in question has reached a scientific stage of verifiable certainty, or . . . whether the procedure 'rests upon the laws of nature.'"[10] A trial court may make this determination from evidence presented by the parties, including expert testimony.[11] The court may base its decision on exhibits, treatises, or persuasive cases from other jurisdictions.[12] In short, a trial court reaches a conclusion based on the available evidence "rather than by simply calculating the consensus in the scientific community."[13] Then, once a procedure is "recognized in a substantial ...


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