Medical Marijuana Patients Can Now Fight DUI Charges in Arizona

Friday, January 13th, 2017

A recent decision by the Arizona Court of Appeals held that medical marijuana patients who have been arrested for driving under the influence of marijuana can fight the charges by arguing that they were not stoned enough to drive.

In 2013 Nadir Ishak was stopped by Mesa police when they saw his vehicle drift into another lane. The officer who arrested Ishak testified that Ishak admitted to using marijuana that morning and that his eyes were bloodshot and watery.

It was later determined that Ishak had a concentration of 26.9 nanograms of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) per milliliter of blood.

Ishak was charged with driving while impaired and driving with marijuana in his system. During trial, Ishak wanted to inform the jury that he possessed a state-issued medical marijuana card at the time of his arrest. The trial judge, however, denied his request. The trial judge also determined that Ishak bore the burden of proving that he was not under the influence. Ishak was subsequently convicted and sentenced to 90 days in jail.

Ishak appealed arguing that the denial prevented him from having a fair trial.

The Arizona Court of Appeals, in a 2-1 decision, agreed with Ishak and concluded that the jury should have been made aware that Ishak was medical marijuana user. Additionally, the court also concluded that prosecutors, not defendants, must prove that a medical marijuana license-carrying driver was actually under the influence of the marijuana, not merely driving with the drug in their system.

In 2010, Arizona voters approved the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act which does not absolve stoned drivers from being charged for driving under the influence of marijuana. However, the Act also said that a medical marijuana user cannot automatically considered under the influence of the drug “solely because the presence of metabolites or components of marijuana that appear in insufficient concentration to cause impairment.”

What’s more, the Arizona Supreme Court in 2015 held that medical marijuana users charged with a DUI can argue “that the concentration of marijuana or its impairing metabolite in [his or her body] was insufficient to cause impairment.”

The prosecutor in Ishak’s case argued that the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act requires medical marijuana users who are arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence prove through expert testimony that the THC in their system was insufficient to cause impairment. He also argued that it is irrelevant whether Ishak was actually impaired.

What ever happened to the fundamental canon of American criminal jurisprudence, “innocent until proven guilty?” Although I can’t say that it surprises me that a DUI prosecutor would actually argue “guilty until proven innocent.”

Fortunately, however, Arizona Appellate Judge Diane Johnson, who wrote for the majority, disagreed with the prosecutor.

"Nothing in the statute … requires a cardholder to present expert testimony (or precludes a cardholder from offering non-expert testimony) on the question of whether the cardholder was impaired due to THC,'’ wrote Johnson. "And, according to evidence here, there is no scientific consensus about the concentration of THC that generally is sufficient to impair a human being.”

I’m happy to say Judge Johnson got it right.

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California Law Attempts to Prevent Marijuana Use While Driving

Thursday, January 5th, 2017

As many of you now know, California passed proposition 64 this past November making recreational marijuana use and possession legal. According to Senator Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, and Assemblyman Evan Low, D-Campbell, proposition 64 contains a loophole that they intend to close.

Last week, the legislators introduced Senate Bill 65 which will criminalize smoking marijuana while driving. Although Proposition 64 legalized the recreational use and possession of marijuana, it still made it illegal to have an open container of marijuana in a vehicle. Proposition 64 did not, however, address the use of marijuana while driving according to Hill and Low.

If you recall from previous posts, Hill has been known to introduce legislation aimed at preventing drunk driving. Last year he passed a law requiring ignition interlock devices for convicted drunk drivers who wished to reinstate their licenses.

“I have a real passion for solving our impaired driving in California from substance abuse,” Hill said. “I don’t want to go in a positive direction on one end and open up the door for deaths on the other end.”

One complaint that opponents have to Senate Bill 65 is that it also bans consumption of cannabidiol, the component of marijuana which is often used by those suffering from chronic pain or to alleviate the symptoms associated with cancer. Cannabidiol does not contain THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), which is the chemical in marijuana that causes impairment.

As I see it, another problem with Senate Bill 65, if passed, is that if a person is arrested for driving while smoking marijuana, they will also inevitably be arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence of marijuana. While a person may have been caught smoking while driving, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are “under the influence” of marijuana.

To be under the influence of marijuana, the person’s use of marijuana caused their mental or physical abilities to become impaired such that they can no longer drive a vehicle with the same caution of a sober person, using ordinary care, under similar circumstances.

While police can utilize field sobriety tests, if the person agrees, to assess whether motor skills are impaired, there is no way to determine how “high” a person is after smoking marijuana. As I’ve said in many previous posts, this is different from alcohol where these is a correlation between a person’s blood alcohol content and impairment. No such correlation exists with marijuana.

Therefore, if Senate Bill 65 is passed, a person arrested for smoking while driving not only faces misdemeanor charges under that law, but they can also inevitably expect DUI of marijuana charges as well.

You can be sure I’ll be keeping my eyes on the progress of this one.

 

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New Efforts to Push Roadside Marijuana DUI Test

Thursday, December 8th, 2016

In April of 2015 I wrote about Assembly Bill 1356, written by Assemblyman Tom Lackey from Palmdale, California, which would have allowed law enforcement to use a device similar to a breathalyzer that could detect the presence of marijuana and a number of other drugs in a driver’s system.

That bill however, failed to pass the Assembly Public Safety Committee the following May because of reliability concerns.

However, with the passing of Proposition 64 which allowed the use of recreational marijuana in California, Lackey who is a former sergeant with the California Highway Patrol, has introduced a new bill similar to that of the failed AB1356.

The newly proposed Assembly Bill 6 would allow tests using saliva samples taken from drivers suspected of driving under the influence. The test would let the officer know whether a driver has recently used a number of drugs including marijuana.

“The ballot initiative passed this year to legalize marijuana will result in more marijuana consumers on our state’s highways and roads,” Lackey said in a statement. “It is imperative that we invest in a broad spectrum of technologies and research to best identify marijuana-impaired drivers.”

The measure is supported by Chief Ken Corney, president of the California Police Chiefs Assn.

“Our federal partners have demonstrated the efficacy of oral fluid testing, and we look forward to utilizing the technology at a state level,” Corney said in a statement.

While the current devices referred to by Corney tests for the presence of drugs, it does not test for drug  quantity nor impairment of the driver.

There is an established correlation between blood alcohol content, specifically the legal limit of 0.08 percent, and alcohol impairment. Unlike alcohol, however, there is no such correlation between the presence of drugs and impairment. In other words, a person can have traces of drug in their system without being impaired by that drug.

Marijuana, for example, can stay in a person’s system for weeks following the smoking or ingesting of the marijuana and well after the person was intoxicated or stoned. The purpose of DUI laws is to prevent impaired driving, not to punish sober and unintoxicated people merely because they ingested drugs at some point in the past.

It is unclear how the presence of a drug may affect the subsequent arrest or DUI case since presence doesn’t necessarily mean impairment. Until we can establish a correlation with drugs including marijuana like we have with alcohol, namely the correlation between quantity and impairment, we shouldn’t be using pushing for laws like this.

Assembly Bill 6 will be brought up for a vote early next year.

 

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West Virginia Supreme Court Rules for DUI on Private Property

Monday, November 14th, 2016

The West Virginia Supreme Court reversed a lower court’s decision and ruled that people can be arrested and convicted of driving under the influence even if it occurred on private property and have their licenses revoked.

The case stems from an incident in 2012 when a man by the name of Joshua Beckett crashed an ATV in a field on the farm owned by his family. Following the collision, Beckett was taken to the hospital where it was discovered that his blood alcohol content was 0.17 percent. He was subsequently charged with driving under the influence.

A magistrate dismissed the DUI case, but an administrative judge upheld a prior revocation of Beckett’s driver’s license for 45 days notwithstanding Beckett’s argument that there was no evidence that he drove on a public street or highway.

Beckett appealed the decision to the Monroe County Circuit Court. There, the circuit court judge ruled that because Beckett’s “actions did not occur on land open to public use,” the administrative judge did not have jurisdiction to revoke his license.

The Division of Motor Vehicles’ commissioner who originally revoked Beckett’s license appealed the decision to the West Virginia Supreme Court.

“The Legislature’s definition of the phrase ‘in this State’ … extends the reach of our driving-under-the-influence laws to any individual driving a vehicle within the physical boundaries of West Virginia, even if the vehicle is driven only upon private property not open to the general public,” Chief Justice Menis Ketchum who wrote a portion of the majority opinion. “The Legislature chose to structure our DUI statutes to regulate the condition of the driver, not the locale in which the driving is taking place. Thus, the Legislature expressed its plain intent to prohibit an intoxicated person from driving a vehicle anywhere in West Virginia, whether on public roads or across private land.”

The decision and its rationale mirrors that which the law here in California.

Division 11 of the California Vehicle Code sets forth the “rules of the road,” if you will, which includes California’s laws against driving with a 0.08 blood alcohol content or higher and driving while under the influence. California Vehicle Code section 21001 states, “The provisions of [Division 11] refer exclusively to the operation of vehicles upon the highways, unless a different place is specifically referred to.” The Code then goes on to state, “[t]he provisions of this chapter apply to vehicles upon the highways and elsewhere throughout the State unless expressly provided otherwise.”

Prior to 1982 the vehicle code made it illegal to drive drunk “upon a highway or upon other than a highway areas in which are open to the general public.” However, in 1982, the legislature deleted the language referring to the locations upon which a person could be arrested and ultimately convicted of drunk driving.

The California Court of Appeals in People v. Malvitz relied on the earlier version of the California Vehicle Code to help clarify the issue. The Court concluded that the “statute that prohibited driving under the influence of alcohol and/or any drug has emerged unencumbered with any language restricting its reach.”

In other words, the Court concluded that it was the intent of the legislature that, in deleting the portion of the statute which referred to location, the law which prohibits drunk driving should extend to anywhere in California where drunk drivers pose a threat included public highways as well private property.

Furthermore, California Vehicle Code section 23215 states, “[law enforcement] may, but shall not be required to, provide patrol or enforce the provisions of [California’s DUI law] for offenses which occur other than upon a highway.”

Whether you’re in West Virginia or in California, it is illegal to drive under the influence on public roads as well as on private property.

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How Long Does a Prosecutor have to File California DUI Charges?

Monday, November 7th, 2016

A person is arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence here in California. They are booked and released with a citation when law enforcement believes they have sobered up. The citation includes a court location and a date upon which the person must appear for their arraignment. About a month goes by and the person appears on the date indicated on the citation, but is surprised to learn that their case is not on the court’s calendar. They are given a slip proving that they appeared and told to keep their eyes open for a notification in the mail from the prosecutor’s office letting them know that charges have been filed.

After this scenario plays out, two questions arise from clients; 1.) Is this common? and 2.) How long do I have to wait?

Let’s tackle the first question.

When law enforcement gives the citation to the person who has been arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence, they don’t actually know that the case will be filed on the date indicated in the citation. Typically, the date is set at least a month, sometimes several months, in advance. This gives law enforcement and prosecutor time to do several things before the court date.

Following, the arrest the officers must prepare the police report on the DUI arrest. This includes the actual written report, the interview of witnesses, the examination of evidence, and the preparation of any video footage.

Once the law enforcement agency completes its report, their file is sent to the prosecuting agency. Here in Southern California, the prosecuting agency is usually a City Attorney or a District Attorney. The prosecuting agency then reviews the file which was given to them by the arresting law enforcement agency and determines if there is enough evidence to file charges.

Often is the case that, by the time this process is complete, the date written on the bottom of the citation has come and gone. Once the prosecutor has all of the information they need and actually make the decision to file California DUI charges, they’ll issue a notification to the person letting them know that charges have been filed and give them a new court date.

So, to answer the first question, unfortunately the answer is yes, it is common and more common than people know.

On to the second question; “How long does the prosecutor have to file the charges?” In other words, how long must a person have to anxiously wait for those charges to be filed?

California Penal Code section 802 states, “Except as provided in subdivision (b), (c), or (d), prosecution for an offense not punishable by death or imprisonment in the state prison shall be commenced within one year after commission of the offense.” Subsections (b), (c), and (d) are not applicable to DUI cases.

Therefore, the prosecutor has one year from the date of arrest to file misdemeanor DUI charges. This is what is called a “statute of limitations.”

Unfortunately, many people mistakenly believe that because the prosecutor hasn’t filed charges by the date on the citation, that the prosecutor has forgotten or that the case just simply and magically disappears. Not so. They have a year.

Additionally, people whom DUI charges have been filed against them within that year, but fail to go to court for years afterwards are also mistaken in believing that they can’t face charges because it is past the statute of limitations. As long as the charges were filed within that year, the charges remain and the person likely has a warrant out for their arrest.

At least in my experience, prosecutors very rarely “forget” to file charges. While it may be common for the date on the citation to come and go, it is not common for that year to come and go without charges being filed. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.

 

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