Category Archives: Drugged Driving
It is not uncommon for police to be trained in recognizing drug intoxication. But should they be allowed to testify as experts in court about drug intoxication in DUI cases?
At least one judge believes not, and rightfully so.
Timothy B. Callahan, from Cheshire, Massachusetts, was pulled over in May of 2016 after police received a report that he had smoked laced marijuana and was acting violently. Additionally, he was alleged to have been speeding and driving erratically before the stop.
Callahan was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence (operating a motor vehicle under the influence or “OUI” as it’s called in Massachusetts).
While being booked, police called in Officer Brennan Polidoro to observe Callahan.
Polidoro received a drug-recognition certificate in 2014 and has since been considered the only Drug Recognition Expert in the county. As of the summer of 2018, Polidoro had evaluated over 15 people accused of driving under the influence of narcotics.
Following Polidoro’s evaluation of Callahan, Polidoro determined that Callahan was under the influence of drugs and Polidoro’s conclusions were included into the police report.
During Callahan’s criminal case, prosecutors sought to have the court recognize Polidoro as an expert so that he could provide testimony about the effects of drugs on a human and offer an opinion as to whether someone was under the influence of drugs.
Callahan’s attorney filed a motion seeking to exclude Polidoro’s testimony as an expert.
During the hearing on whether Polidoro should be allowed to testify as an expert, the prosecution offered evidence that Polidoro was trained in drug recognition and that the training was based on three law enforcement studies from 1985, 1986, and 1994. Evidence was also offered that after evaluating 12 individuals during training, Polidoro was determined to be “proficient” by his instructors who formed their opinions as to his proficiency based on the same studies.
Let me get this straight. The prosecution is arguing that an officer should be deemed an “expert” in how chemicals affect the human body if other law enforcement officers think they’re proficient, not physicians or chemists or other medical professionals? “Proficiency” after 12 training evaluations, really? Am I missing something? Does Polidoro have a background in chemistry or medicine?
What’s more, “proficiency” as determined by law enforcement is an accuracy rate of 43% to 49% when people did not have drugs in their system. Really?!?! That means that law enforcement considers being wrong 57% to 51% of the time as “proficient.” With people’s lives at stake, you’d think they’d set their standards a little bit higher.
Fortunately, the court disagreed with the prosecution.
“As law enforcement has embraced these studies as the basis for their trainings, the Court finds that, `proficient,’ as used by law enforcement means a 43% to 49% accuracy rate for identifying those subjects with no drugs in their systems,” said Judge Jennifer Tyne. “The Court does not find this to be reliable, let alone proficient.”
“Based on the evidence presented at this hearing, the Court finds that the body of knowledge, the principles and the methods that the officer was instructed on are not reliable predictors of whether an individual is under the influence of certain narcotics,” Tyne said.
Having denied the prosecution the ability to introduce Polidoro’s testimony about drug recognition and the effects of drugs on humans as an expert, Judge Tyne did, however, say that Polidoro could testify about his observations of Callahan and any statements Callahan might have made after Callahan’s arrest.
Callahan may very well have been under the influence of drugs while driving, but that’s not the point. The court should not allow the testimony of “experts” without a sufficient basis to deem that person an expert. Doing so can lead to wrongful convictions in DUI and any other types of criminal cases.
During this past New Year’s holiday, the Los Angeles Police Department utilized a new portable oral test that is able to check for the presence of marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamines, and other drugs in a person’s system. In their attempt to start aggressively enforcing impaired driving laws, they decided to use this test at New Years’ checkpoints even though the test had only been used about 50 times prior. Prosecutors hope that this eight-minute oral fluids test will eventually become an effective indicator of impairment of drugs, though they have yet to use any results from these tests as evidence in their cases.
Although this test does have the capability of checking for the presence of THC, which is the component most identified with the use of marijuana and which causes the psychoactive effects of marijuana, it does not test for impairment from THC. However, since the legalization of recreational marijuana in several states, experts have struggled to determine an appropriate level of use that would consistently label a person to be “impaired.”
It is undoubtedly important for law makers to be presented with research that helps to determine at what level of THC presence that will cause a person’s impairment. Without this, the current legal terminology of “under the influence” is extremely subjective. Unlike the research with alcohol that determined that there is a strong correlation between impairment and blood alcohol levels higher than 0.08, the research with THC levels are still inconclusive. Both neuroscientists and pharmacologists are having difficulties determining to what extent the drug can impair a person’s ability to drive as well as an appropriate way to measure it. Private companies are currently working on a breathalyzer to test for impairment similar to that used in alcohol related cases, however, the results are still not as definitive as the tests used to determine impairment of alcohol.
In the interim, the Legislature’s Special Commission on Operating Under the Influence and Impaired Driving is recommending mandatory drug testing for stoned drivers under the threat of license suspension. Law enforcement insists that this is the best way to keep stoned drivers off the road.
The threat of losing one’s license may be an effective way to keep stoned drivers off the streets, but at this point in time, it also comes with a multitude of issues, including those that make the tests unconstitutional. For one, it is still unconstitutional to force a blood draw or saliva test without a warrant.
An additional issue is that unlike alcohol that metabolizes fairly quickly and at a measurable rate, THC can last in one’s body for days, even weeks. The “recommended” tests may undoubtedly accurately measure the amount of THC in the body, but there is still no measurement for impairment. ACLU Field Director Matt Allen, who is a member of the special commission stated, “We want to ensure that if motorists are faced with penalties such as losing their license for not taking a drug test that that test is scientifically proven to measure impairment.” However, he was the lone “no” vote on the recommendation.
The scientific community is undoubtedly working on the answer. Hopefully sooner rather than later, the public will be presented with a fairly accurate level of what impairment under the influence of marijuana means. Without it, it is not only law enforcement who is at a loss for efficiently assessing impairment, but all responsible users who lack a point of reference of this newly legal drug to make sure that they are not inadvertently putting the public in danger. Until then, we cannot arbitrarily punish people who have THC in their system, but are not impaired by it.
As predicted, recreational marijuana is here in California. California joined Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, and the District of Columbia in legalizing both medical and recreational marijuana. Thirty states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana. The trend of states in the expanding legalization of marijuana has had tech companies scrambling to become the first to develop a marijuana breathalyzer.
However, a California company has recently claimed to have cracked the code.
California Vehicle Code section 23152(e) makes it illegal to drive a vehicle while under the influence of drugs including marijuana. Unlike California’s DUI of alcohol law, there is no legal limit for marijuana, or more specifically, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) the psychoactive component of marijuana. Therefore, a person can only be arrested and convicted of a marijuana DUI if the ingestion of marijuana impairs a person’s ability to drive a vehicle as a sober person would under similar circumstances.
To prove that a person is driving under the influence of marijuana, a prosecutor can use officer observations of driving patterns, observations during the traffic stop, performance on field sobriety tests, and the presence of THC in any blood test done.
Although THC can be detected in quantities of nanograms per milliliter of blood, the quantification is unlike alcohol in that the degree of impairment is unrelated to the amount of THC in a person’s blood. With alcohol, there is a fairly accurate correlation between a person’s blood alcohol content and how impaired they are. Therefore, unlike alcohol where prosecutors only need to prove that a person’s BAC was above a 0.08 percent, with marijuana, prosecutors can only prove that a person was “under the influence.”
Since “under the influence” is an extremely subjective standard, it is often very difficult to prosecute DUI of marijuana cases. This is especially true if the driver refused to perform the field sobriety tests and/or the officer did not observe driving that would be indicative of someone who is under the influence of marijuana.
Hound Labs, located in Oakland, California, is hoping to bridge the gap for officers and prosecutors.
“We are trying to make the establishment of impairment around marijuana rational and to balance fairness and safety,” said Hound Labs CEO Mike Lynn.
The company is claiming that it has developed a breathalyzer that can detect whether a subject has ingested marijuana in the last two hours, which many to consider the peak time for marijuana impairment after ingestion.
“When you find THC in breath, you can be pretty darn sure that somebody smoked pot in the last couple of hours,” Lynn says. “And we don’t want to have people driving during that time period or, frankly, at a work site in a construction zone.”
If accurate, Hound Labs would be the closest to developing this type of technology. However, thus far, no company has yet developed a machine to detect actual impairment.
According to Lynn, law enforcement are trying to determine who is impaired as opposed to “”somebody who smoked maybe yesterday or a few days ago and is not impaired. They’re not in the business of arresting people that are not impaired when it comes to marijuana. That makes no sense at all.”
Several law enforcement agencies will begin testing Hound Lab’s breathalyzer this fall. “They’re interested in it providing objective data for them at the roadside,” says Lynn. “That’s really the key, objective data at the roadside — just like we have for alcohol.”
For those of you who think that it is safe to smoke some marijuana and get behind the wheel, be aware that law enforcement could be out with a new roadside tool at their disposal to confirm that you have smoked within two hours, that is if Hound Labs’s new device does that it claims it can do.
Prop. 64 is in full swing here in California. While medicinal marijuana has been legal in California since 1996, recreational marijuana is now available for adults who are at least 21-years-old, subject to certain limitations. Up to an ounce of marijuana can be purchased per day and consumed in private locations. The private location cannot, however, be in a vehicle whether you are the driver or the passenger. More importantly for us, a person still cannot drive while under the influence of marijuana.
To be legally under the influence of marijuana a person’s mental or physical abilities are impaired to a degree that they can no longer drive a vehicle with the caution of a sober person, using ordinary care, under similar circumstance.
This definition of impairment is the same for a DUI of alcohol as well. However, with a DUI of alcohol, a person need not be under the influence as long as they have a blood alcohol content of at least 0.08 percent at the time of driving. The purpose behind this rule is that science has established a strong correlation between a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent or higher and the definition of impairment spelled out above.
Alcohol, which is water-soluble, is absorbed and eliminated from the body relatively quickly. In most circumstances, if a person consumes alcohol during an evening of drinking, the alcohol should be eliminated by the following morning.
The same, however, cannot be said of marijuana. When someone consumes marijuana, the “high” comes from tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and can last several hours. THC is fat-soluble and can stay in a person’s system for weeks, possibly longer, even though the “high” has long since worn off. As such, there’s little to no correlation between the amount of THC in a person’s system and whether they meet the definition of being under the influence stated above.
Notwithstanding the lack of a correlation between the amount of THC in a person’s system and degree of impairment, Washington State, which has also legalized recreational marijuana, set a limit of 5 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood in a person’s system.
Lt. Rob Sharpe, who works for the Washington State Patrol’s impaired driving unit, told the Los Angeles Times he believes establishing a legal limit for pot is a necessity.
“If I don’t know how much marijuana I can consume and safely drive, how can I be held to a standard that it’s unsafe to drive?” he asked.
The problem with Washington’s “per se” limit is that a regular user of marijuana can have 5 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood weeks after having consumed marijuana.
It doesn’t take a lawyer or a judge to tell you that the purpose of DUI laws, whether they’re for DUI of alcohol or DUI of marijuana, is to protect the driver and the public as a whole from impaired driving because that is what’s dangerous. And now that marijuana is legal in both California and Washington, as well as a number of other states, it is no different than alcohol. Like alcohol, a person should be free to consume something that they are legally allowed to consume without fear of being arrested for a DUI days or weeks later.
To have a per se limit for THC, as Washington does, would allow law enforcement to arrest someone for a DUI of marijuana weeks after they have consumed marijuana even though they are no longer impaired. It would be the same as if law enforcement arrested someone for a DUI of alcohol weeks after a night of drinking when they haven’t had a drop of alcohol since that night.
Should there be a per se legal limit for marijuana? Absolutely not, at least not until science can determine how impaired someone is when they’ve consumed marijuana.
A new California bill could see drivers under the age of 21 lose their driver’s license for a year if they are caught behind the wheel with marijuana in their system.
State Senator Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), who has been behind several DUI-related bills, proposed the law so that the state would have the same “zero tolerance” policy for marijuana as it does for alcohol when the driver is under the age of 21.
California’s current “zero tolerance” law, under Vehicle Code section 23136, prohibits drivers under the age of 21 from having any alcohol in their systems. If a driver under the age of 21 tests positive for any alcohol in their system, their driver’s license will be suspended for one year through the DMV, but the matter is not considered criminal. Drivers under the age of 21 who have a blood alcohol content of 0.05 percent or higher, however, can be charged with Vehicle Code section 23140 which is an infraction with a $100 fine, a possible alcohol education class, and the one-year suspension through the DMV. Lastly, a driver under the age of 21 can also be charged with the standard DUI charges under Vehicle Code section 23152 that adults face when they are driving under the influence.
“This bill will save lives by making it illegal for drivers under age 21 to drive under the influence of marijuana, just like current law for alcohol,” Hill said in a statement.
It should be made clear, notwithstanding Hill’s statement, that the law would target the presence of marijuana in the driver’s system, not whether the underage driver was “under the influence” of marijuana.
Currently, there is no reliable way to determine exactly how intoxicated or under the influence someone is as a result of marijuana ingestion even though the psychoactive component of marijuana (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol or “THC”) might be present in a person system. A person could have smoked marijuana weeks ago and, while the intoxicating effects have long since passed, the THC may still be detectable in the person’s blood.
Hill foresees law enforcement officers being able to use oral swabs to determine if marijuana has been consumed recently. Although, local law enforcement has experimented with such devices recently, the LA Times reported that no such product has yet been approved for use by California law enforcement agencies.
“We don’t have a device in the field to measure impairment of cannabis,” Richard Desmond, an assistant chief for the California Highway Patrol, told legislators this week.
“[The bill] will do nothing to make the roads safer, nor to reduce youth drug abuse,” Dale Gieringer, director of California NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), told the San Francisco Chronicle. “What it will do is encourage cops to conduct random screenings of young drivers without any evidence of dangerous driving and grab their licenses for no good reason.”
Although the proposed law requires that law enforcement have reasonable suspicion that the driver might have marijuana in their system before they forcibly test them, I would not put it past some (maybe many) law enforcement officers to fabricate the reasonable suspicion so that they can conduct random screenings as Gieringer suggests.
Fortunately, the bill provides an exemption for drivers under 21 who use medical marijuana if the officer determines that they are not impaired.