Tara Valdez was convicted of driving while intoxicated. No proof existed that she had drunk any alcohol, but a blood test detected the presence of oxycodone, diazepam, and nordiazepam in her system.
A New Mexico statute requires that anyone convicted of DWI be required to obtain an ignition interlock device and install it in his or her vehicle. When the device is installed, the vehicle cannot be started until the driver blows into it, and if the device detects a blood-alcohol level above a certain limit, then the vehicle will not start. (I believe the device is fairly expensive to purchase and install, and having an interlock device in one’s car would surely be inconvenient, not to say embarrassing.)
“But hold on,” Valdez said, “interlock devices can only detect alcohol; they cannot tell whether a driver is impaired by other drugs. And because I was not convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol, forcing me to install the device in my vehicle would be utterly useless. The law irrationally treats me in the same way that it treats those who have been convicted of driving while drunk on alcohol. Therefore, the statutory requirement violates my constitutional right to the equal protection of the laws.” (Of course, I’m paraphrasing here).
Chief Judge Celia Foy Castillo’s opinion (State v. Valdez) rejected this argument. The parties agreed that the statute could only be held unconstitutional if no rational basis existed to support it. But the Court of Appeals held that a rational basis did exist to support the interlock device requirement, even for non-alcohol-impaired drivers, because the Legislature could rationally conclude “that those who have been convicted of driving under the influence of drugs may also be disposed toward driving under the influence of alcohol.”
Nor did it matter that the State presented no evidence that drug-impaired drivers are more likely than the average person to drive under the influence of alcohol. The Court of Appeals noted that under rational basis review, “a legislative choice is not subject to courtroom fact-finding and may be based on rational speculation unsupported by evidence or empirical data.”
State v. Valdezis yet another object lesson in just how difficult it is to prove that a statute is unconstitutional under rational basis review. Absent a compelling case that a law makes no sense whatsoever, the appellate courts will likely uphold it.