Recreational Marijuana Laws and the California DUI

Sunday, January 7th, 2018

As predicted, California passed Proposition 64, otherwise known as The Adult Use of Marijuana Act, on November 8th 2016. This made it legal for people to possess and use marijuana recreationally in California. However, it wasn’t until January 1st of this year that recreational marijuana could be sold to consumers.  

So what does this mean for marijuana laws in California, including marijuana DUI laws?

Well, let’s start with the laws that aren’t related to a DUI of marijuana. Adults over the age of 21 can purchase and possess up to one ounce of marijuana and can grow up to six plants per household out of public view. People under the age of 18 can only purchase marijuana if they have their medical license.

Those who are able to possess marijuana cannot consume in public, even in areas where it is legal to smoke cigarettes. Some cities plan on allowing consumptions of marijuana at designated lounges. However, until then, smoking in public places can lead to fine of $100 to $250.

Just like alcohol, drivers cannot consume marijuana while driving. And any marijuana that is being transported in a car, must be in a sealed container in the trunk.

While marijuana laws have changed in many other respects, it is still illegal to drive while under the influence of marijuana.

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.

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.

Law makers could seek some sort of per se limit for how much THC can be in a person’s blood while driving. Several states have set a per se limit of five nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood. Colorado, has set a five nanogram per milliliter of blood limit to allow for the presumption that a person is “under the influence.” Unfortunately, current per se limits for THC, are an inaccurate measure of how impaired a person is.

Unlike alcohol, THC is fat soluble and remains in a user’s system long after they have ingested the marijuana, sometimes by several weeks. This creates the possibility of being arrested with five nanograms of THC in the system weeks after a person has smoked marijuana and well after the “high” is gone. Yet, because the THC is present, a person can either be arrested or, in Colorado, presumed to be under the influence.

As tech companies are scrambling to be the first to develop a device that will allow law enforcement to test “how high someone is,” Assemblyman, Tom Lackey, who is a former sergeant with the California Highway Patrol, has introduced Assembly Bill 6 which 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 [in 2016] 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.”

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.

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 this year.

Since it is perfectly legal to consume marijuana and have THC in your system, it is important to protect yourself from unwarranted DUI of marijuana charges. Do not say anything to the police. The 5th Amendment exists for a reason; use it. Politely refuse any field sobriety tests. Lastly, remember that you must submit to a chemical test after you have been arrested.


Breath or Blood Test After a California DUI Stop?

Thursday, October 19th, 2017

Let’s imagine a common DUI scenario.

A person is stopped on suspicion of a California DUI. The person stopped has read my many posts telling readers that the field sobriety tests are optional and should not be submitted to. So they politely decline the field sobriety tests. Then the officer requests an on-scene breathalyzer known as the “preliminary alcohol screening” test or PAS test. In addition to my posts reminding readers that this too is option, the officer also informs the driver that the PAS test is optional. So this too is politely declined by the driver. Lastly, the officer advises the driver that they are under arrest on suspicion of a California DUI and that, by law, they must submit to a chemical test which can either be a breath or a blood test.

Which test should the driver choose? Breath or blood?

The DUI blood test is much more accurate than the DUI breath test. The blood test is far less likely than a DUI breath test to produce a false reading. Another benefit of a DUI blood test is that the law requires that a sample of the blood is saved for future testing by the DUI suspect’s defense attorney. The defense attorney can have the sample tested by its own blood analyst to contradict the results of the prosecutor’s analyst. This is called a “blood split” and it is commonly used in DUI defense.

The blood test, however, is not infallible. See my previous post:

The Dirty Skin Defense

Since the blood test is more accurate, if a person knows that they have not had much to drink and they are fairly certain that they are under the legal limit of 0.08 percent, then a blood test might be the better option. On the other hand, the blood test might not be the best for someone who is clearly over the legal limit because it will be more difficult to dispute the test results.

 Unlike the blood test, the breath test is rather unreliable. Breath tests can provide false readings for several reasons. See Lawrence Taylor’s post:

Are Breathalyzers Accurate?

Although California DUI attorneys cannot dispute the reliability of breathalyzers as a whole during a DUI trial, they can provide evidence that the particular breathalyzer used in an individual case was inaccurate.

Unlike the blood test, the breath test may be a better option for someone who knows they are likely over the legal limit because it will be easier for a California DUI attorney to refute the results. However, many people who are actually under the legal limit may still test over the legal limit because of the same inaccuracies.

Simply put, if you are fairly confident that your blood alcohol content will below the legal limit of 0.08 percent, you’re probably better off opting for the blood test because it will accurately show that you were, in fact, under the legal limit. However, if you think there is a chance that you could be above the legal limit, you might be better off opting for a breath test so that your attorney can challenge the results if you test above the legal limit.


DA Walks Away from what should have been a DUI Stop

Tuesday, July 5th, 2016

Police are supposed to be neutral and gather the evidence whether incriminating or exculpatory. They are not supposed to side with either the prosecution or the defense. This simply isn’t the case. More often than not, police try to find incriminating evidence, and only incriminating evidence, even when it might not exist…

…except when the suspect is a district attorney.

Earlier this month, a driver called 911 to report a suspected drunk driver in Silver City, New Mexico. Cell phone video confirmed the suspected drunk driver’s poor driving.

When Silver City police arrived, they noticed that the suspect was recently re-elected district attorney of Grant, Luna, and Hidalgo counties, Francesca Estevez.

An officer’s body camera captured the bizarre interaction between police and Estevez.  

"I have a flat! And I kept going over, and over!" Estevez said from inside the car. "I was coming in from Deming and the car kept swinging this way!"

Moments later, Estevez said that she was coming from Lordsburg.

In addition to the inconsistent statement, Estevez was slurring her speech, having trouble on her feet, fumbling with her phone, and went on a strange rant.

“We don’t want the U.S. Department of Justice to start looking down here,” she said. “It’s gotten to that point. Most of you are good.”

“What do you think?” asked Officer Leticia Lopez who was wearing the body camera. “She’s loaded, she almost fell down,” responded Officer Kyle Spurgeon.

New Mexico State Police were called in to assist with the stop. However, Officer Alyssa Carasco of the New Mexico State Police Department appeared to be disinterested in initiating a DUI investigation.

“If you have a problem with me not doing anything, then you can go ahead and do something. I’m not,” Carasco told Lopez.

Then the video appears to show Estevez appear to practice a heel-to-toe field sobriety test along a crack in the sidewalk.

What’s more, as Estevez was allowed to drive away, she ran into a curb right in front of the officers.

Had this been anyone else (well except maybe another officer), they would have been investigated and arrested on suspicion of DUI.

And so I ask: Who are the police working for?

New Mexico State Police has launched an internal investigation. It has yet to be determined whether Silver City Police will do the same.


Can Body Cameras Assist in DUI Stops?

Monday, March 14th, 2016

It’s no big secret that many people have come to distrust law enforcement. The public distrust peaked in recent times after the highly publicized, and criticized, officer-involved shootings of Kelly Thomas, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Freddy Gray, to name a few.

In response, several law enforcement agencies began to issue body cameras to their officers with the hopes that incidences like these stop or, at a minimum, provide unbiased, objective information on what actually occurred.

In fact, even President Barack Obama urged law enforcement agencies throughout the country to issue body cameras to officers and offered $20 million in federal funds towards obtaining them.

As of April this year, Davis Police will be the latest law enforcement agency to be equipped with body cameras to record interactions with the public.

“It’s a great evidence-gathering tool for us,” said Lt. Tom Waltz. “It’s also another level of transparency. In situations where there’s a dispute about what occurred, we have a recording of it.

Davis officers will not be allowed to delete or modify footage obtained from the body cameras. They will however, be allowed to view the footage before giving a statement or preparing a police report. The footage will be uploaded to a server following an officer’s shift, or the footage can be uploaded immediately in cases where it is necessary to view the footage immediately.

With the use of body cameras increasing amongst law enforcement agencies here in California, the questions arises, “what effect will body cameras have on DUI stops?”

Many law enforcement agencies currently use what are commonly known as “dash cams;” cameras mounted to the dash of police squad cars. The cameras capture the DUI stop and provide information on whether the officer had the probable cause to make the traffic stop. The camera, however, is limited in that it cannot capture what the officer regularly uses as a justification to begin investigating and ultimately making an arrest for a DUI; the up-close interaction with the person whom they’ve pulled over.

What’s more, when officers have a person perform field sobriety tests, they often take them out of the view of the dash cam. The officers then prepare a police report which indicates that the person failed the field sobriety test, sometimes without even explaining how or why they came to the conclusion that the person failed.

The job of police is to obtain information and evidence objectively. Unfortunately, this is often not the case.  Officer testimony and police reports are regularly made for the purpose of securing a DUI conviction and, as such, are biased.

A body camera, however, would serve to provide first-hand evidence to support officer claims that a person was, in fact driving drunk. If an officer justifies a DUI arrest by claiming that an arrestee had slurred speech and bloodshot, watery eyes, the footage would verify the officer’s claims. If an officer determines that a person failed field sobriety tests, the footage from the body camera could support the officer’s interpretation of the person’s performance.

Lt. Waltz of the Davis Police Department used a word that I think captures what will hopefully become effect of using body cameras for law enforcement; transparency. The purpose of the body camera is not necessarily to find incriminating evidence, exculpatory evidence, or even evidence of police misconduct. The purpose of the body camera is to find the truth and if that’s what it provides, I’m on board.


What is the Difference between a PAS Test and a Chemical Test?

Monday, January 25th, 2016

Most people are unaware that many California DUI stops include two separate and distinct breath tests. And people are often confused about whether they must provide a breath sample to both or either test. It is admittedly confusing, and most people are surprised when I tell them that one of the breath tests is required and the other is not.

The two tests I am referring to are 1.) the preliminary alcohol screening test (PAS test), and 2.) the chemical breath test. While they are both “breathalyzer” tests, their distinction lies in when the DUI arrest is made.

According to California Vehicle Code section 23612(h), the PAS test “indicates the presence or concentration of alcohol based on a breath sample in order to establish reasonable cause to believe the person was driving [under the influence]…[it] is a field sobriety test and may be used by an officer as a further investigative tool.”

Following a California DUI stop, but before a DUI arrest, an officer may request that the suspected drunk driver perform field sobriety tests which, most people know, includes the horizontal gaze nystagmus test, the walk-and-turn test, and the one-leg stand test. What most people don’t know, however, is that the breathalyzer test requested by officers before an arrest is also a field sobriety test. This is the PAS test. And like the other field sobriety tests, the PAS test is optional.

The investigating officer must advise the DUI suspect that the PAS test is, in fact, optional. California Vehicle Code section 23612(i) states that “If the officer decides to use a [PAS], the officer shall advise the person that he or she is requesting that person to take a [PAS] test to assist the officer in determining if that person is under the influence. The person’s obligation to submit to a [chemical test under California’s Implied Consent Law] is not satisfied by the person submitting to a [PAS] test. The officer shall advise the person of that fact and of the person’s right to refuse to take the [PAS] test.”

Field sobriety tests, including the PAS test, are a means to determine if the officer has the required probable cause to arrest the DUI suspect for a California DUI.

If the officer has the requisite probable cause to make an arrest, whether through the field sobriety tests, the PAS test, or any other information, California’s Implied Consent Law kicks in. Herein lies the difference between a PAS test and a chemical test.

California Vehicle Code section 23612(a)(1)(A) sets forth the Implied Consent requirement. “A person who drives a motor vehicle is deemed to have given his or her consent to chemical testing of his or her blood or breath for the purpose of determining the alcohol content of his or her blood, if lawfully arrested for an offense allegedly committed in violation of [California’s DUI laws].”

In other words, licensed California drivers have impliedly consented to provide a chemical test following a lawful DUI arrest.

The post-arrest chemical test can be either a breath test or a blood test. If a person opts against providing blood, they must provide a breath sample. And for this breath test, they will be taking a breathalyzer very much like the PAS test.

The short version of this article is this: A pre-arrest PAS test is optional and you should always politely decline this test. A post-arrest chemical breath test is required provided the suspect opts not to provide a blood sample and provided that the arrest was lawful.