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After 16-minute deliberation, jury finds man guilty of DUI No. 14

It took a Billings jury 16 minutes to find Edwin Cuch guilty of his 14th drunken driving offense.

The jury reached the verdict at the end of Cuch’s one-day trial on Wednesday in Yellowstone County District Court, with District Judge G. Todd Baugh presiding.

Baugh set sentencing for Sept. 15.

The case hinged on one thing: Whether Cuch, 62, was on a “way of the state open to the public” — one of the elements that must be proven for a person to be convicted of DUI in Montana — when he was found drunk behind the wheel.

Cuch’s attorney, Assistant Public Defender Clark Mathews, didn’t dispute that his client was drunk at the time of the arrest or that Cuch was in control of a car.

But Mathews argued that the unmaintained “driveway of sorts” where Cuch was found didn’t fit the definition of a “way of the state open to the public.”

Police arrested Cuch on the afternoon of Oct. 19, 2013, after finding him passed out in a car parked on the 600 block of North 26th Street. The block is bisected by an unpaved alley. A resident called police after finding Cuch parked off of a rough, unmaintained dirt drive that runs perpendicular between North 26th Street and the alley. 

The arresting officer, Harley Cagle of the Billings Police Department, testified that he found Cuch passed out behind the wheel of a red Mercury Sable. Cagle said Cuch had a can of high-gravity beer between his legs, and that the car’s engine wasn’t running, but a key was in the ignition.

Senior Deputy Yellowstone County Attorney Robert S. Spoja, the prosecutor assigned to the case, showed the jury a video recording of the arrest.

"It's the police," Cagle said, knocking on the driver's window of the car in which Cuch was found. 

"Do you know where you are right now?" he can be heard saying after waking Cuch.

"Boise, Idaho," Cuch replied a couple of times.

The video goes on to show Cuch apparently performing poorly on several sobriety tests, after which Cagle arrests him. A blood sample was taken and tested at the state crime lab.

Lynn Kurtz, the toxicologist who did the test, testified that Cuch had a blood-alcohol concentration of .187 percent, more than double the legal limit of .08 percent.

Cuch did not testify and the defense didn’t call any witnesses.

In his closing argument, Mathews said common sense showed the state failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Cuch was found on a “way of the state open to the public,” an essential element to prove for the jury to reach a guilty verdict. 

Spoja said common sense should lead the jury to the opposite conclusion.

“There is one purpose of this driveway, and that's to be driven on,” he said. 

Cuch has 13 prior DUI convictions dating back to 1993. Three of them — in 1998, 2000 and 2006 — happened in Montana, while five each come from Utah and Wyoming, according to the Yellowstone County Attorney's Office.

The trial was a rematch of sorts between Mathews and Spoja, who faced off in a similar DUI trial last November.

In that case, a jury found Alvin Lee Larocque not guilty of DUI per se, which is operating a motor vehicle with a blood-alcohol concentration of .08 percent or greater, even though a breath test showed he had a blood alcohol concentration of .178 percent.

Billings police arrested Larocque in May 2013, after officers were sent to check on a man passed out in a vehicle in an alley behind Jefferson Street, according to court records.

An officer found Larocque, who has five DUI convictions, sleeping in the passenger seat.