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Four-time felon’s DUI verdict rejected by appellate court

A four-time felon who caused a crash that killed a 2-year-old in 1998 should get a third trial on an unrelated drunken driving charge stemming from a police chase through Mead two years ago, a state Appeals Court has ruled.

Ryan Quaale, 38, who has four traffic-related felonies, was granted a new trial last week by a panel of Washington state Appellate Court judges, who found that questioning a Washington State Patrol trooper during an April 2012 trial improperly prejudiced a jury. Prosecutors asked Trooper Chris Stone, who arrested Quaale after he sped erratically through a Mead neighborhood in August 2011, whether in his professional opinion it appeared as though the driver’s “ability to operate a motor vehicle was impaired,” over an objection from defense attorneys.

“Absolutely,” Stone responded. “There was no doubt he was impaired.”

A jury returned a guilty verdict for a felony charge of driving under the influence of alcohol.

Stone’s statement sparked an appeal by Quaale, who argued that expert witnesses may only offer opinions to aid a jury in determining independently whether a defendant is guilty. Stone’s statement went beyond that standard, the defense argued, by linking the results of a field test not to the presence or level of intoxication, but to whether Quaale’s driving was impaired.

The three appellate judges unanimously agreed.

“The opinion addressed not only an ultimate fact, and not only the core disputed fact, but in the form of a conclusion from scientific evidence that the jury was not in a position to independently assess,” Judge Laurel Siddoway wrote in her opinion. Stone’s testimony was the prosecution’s sole evidence in the case, as Quaale refused a breath analysis at the scene and no blood sample was drawn, according to court records.

The decision sends the case back to Superior Court, should prosecutors choose to pursue the charges a third time. A jury in February 2012 convicted Quaale of attempting to elude police but could not agree on the felony DUI charge, prompting the April proceedings the appellate case addressed.

In 1998, Quaale pleaded guilty to vehicular manslaughter in the death of toddler Brandon Burrows, who was strapped into a car seat of a car Quaale struck during a drunken-driving spree that left six others injured. He was sentenced to more than six years in prison in Burrows’ death, and Judge Tari Eitzen ordered a photo of the boy to hang in Quaale’s cell, according to previous news reports.

Quaale is serving a 20-month sentence at Airway Heights Corrections Center on the eluding police charge. The state has until next month to determine whether it wants a review of the appellate court’s decision.

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