LOS ANGELES — A Newport Beach police policy that forces many drunk-driving suspects to submit to blood tests against their will is under attack again in a federal courtroom.
Less than a year after one jury found that the policy violates the rights of citizens, a second disgruntled motorist is asking for substantial damages in another case in federal court in Los Angeles.
Steven Bohunis, 29, of Long Beach, claims that he refused when police asked him to submit to blood tests after his car ran off the road in 1985. But at least five Newport Beach officers literally held him down on the floor of a hospital corridor--with one sitting on his chest--while a blood sample was drawn, Bohunis testified Wednesday.
Bonhunis' lawyer, Stephen Yagman, alleges that police used excessive force and violated his client's rights in taking the sample by force.
The policy, used by many police departments in California, including the Highway Patrol, is at the center of a legal controversy surrounding the earlier case involving Newport Beach. Both state Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp and the California League of Cities support Newport Beach in its appeal of a verdict last year in which an admitted drunk driver was awarded $15,500 in damages and another $23,000 in legal fees.
"This is having a very damaging, disabling and crippling effect on law enforcement officers out in the field," said Frederick Millar Jr., a supervising deputy attorney general who has filed briefs supporting Newport Beach's appeal.
"In this area of drunk driving, there is a great deal of public concern. We don't feel that there is a proper basis for awarding damages," Millar said.
Under California law, a suspect who refuses to submit to a breath, urine or blood test automatically loses his or her driver's license for six months. But Newport Beach and other agencies claim the right to take blood samples, by force if necessary, while conducting investigations.
In the earlier case, Yagman argued that police use excessive force when they take samples after a suspect has refused. In that case, Timothy Hammer, 28, of Hawaii, previously convicted of drunk driving, testified that he refused to submit to tests. When officers told him that they would take a blood sample whether he agreed or not, he submitted. In October, jurors returned damages against Newport Beach, former Police Chief Charles Gross, who retired in 1986, and an officer. Gross was ordered personally to pay $10,000 because of the police policy.
In contrast to Hammer, Bohunis claimed that he tried to submit to a breath test. But he testified that officers had just placed him in a choke hold and didn't give him enough time to catch his breath. Bohunis said officers interpreted that as a refusal.
Bohunis testified that he had as many as four drinks in less than an hour before the incident but did not feel affected by the alcohol. He said he was driving home alone when he was forced to swerve to avoid an unknown driver. He lost control and went down a 70-foot embankment off Jamboree Road.
Officers took him to the local police station, then to Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian in Newport Beach, where he was restrained while a technician used a hypodermic syringe to draw blood from his arm.
Bohunis' lawsuit names eight police officers and former chief Gross. Defense lawyer Thomas J. Feeley told jurors Wednesday that Bohunis acted irrationally, yelling and kicking as officers tried to administer the breath test and draw blood. The initial breath test showed a blood-alcohol level of between .22 and .24, more than double the legal level, according to testimony Wednesday.
Feeley contends that involuntary blood tests have been approved by the highest judges in California and the United States.