Pubdate: Fri, 05 Aug 2011 Source: Chicago Tribune (IL) Copyright: 2011 Chicago Tribune Company Contact: http://drugsense.org/url/IuiAC7IZ Website: http://www.chicagotribune.com/ Details: http://www.mapinc.org/media/82 BAD INFLUENCE The Wrong Remedy for Drug-Using Drivers. Someone who drinks to excess and gets behind the wheel of a car can be prosecuted and punished for driving under the influence. Everyone would agree that's as it should be. But what if the law included DUI to cover anyone driving sober who has had a drink in the last week? That would make little sense, since the past drinking would have no effect on the motorist's fitness to drive. But under Illinois law, something very similar is the norm for drivers who have used illegal drugs. In 2004, a 24-year-old man named Aaron Martin was driving his pickup on a two-lane highway in Peoria County when he crossed over the center line and hit an oncoming car, killing two women. He received a pair of traffic citations, but after his arrest, agreed to provide urine and blood samples. Martin had no alcohol in his system, but the urinalysis found a tiny amount of methamphetamine. For that, he was convicted of aggravated DUI, a felony, and sentenced to six years in prison. An appeals court overturned the conviction, since prosecutors didn't prove the drug played a role in the crash. But in April, the Illinois Supreme Court said that as the law was written, no such proof is needed. Given that his driving caused the fatal accident and that he had previously used the drug, Martin was guilty. Since then, prosecutors around the state have been upgrading charges for motorists even when they showed no impairment. The implications of the ruling go far beyond Martin's case. It could snare any recreational marijuana smoker whose driving causes a fatality -- since cannabis can trigger a positive drug test for days or even weeks afterward. This reading of the law puts huge numbers of people at risk of a felony conviction anytime they get behind the wheel. If John gets drunk on Monday and, while sober, runs over a pedestrian Wednesday, he will probably only get a traffic ticket. But if Bob has a joint on Thursday and kills someone while speeding on Sunday, he faces serious prison time. Beer, of course, is legal, while cannabis is not. But there are already penalties on the books for marijuana possession. There are no solid grounds for punishing bad but unimpaired driving differently according to the driver's substance of choice. The new interpretation could also snare people who use legal prescription drugs -- if, for example, the prescription has expired. It's also true that it's easier for cops to identify drunken drivers than those who are high. A simple breath or blood test can tell if someone has had enough alcohol to be impaired. An equally simple means is not available for all the illicit drugs out there. But it's still possible to detect impairment through field sobriety. Potheads may reek of weed. A driver caught on videotape mumbling incoherently would have a hard time arguing the dope in his urine had no effect. In these cases, an officer can request a blood or urine sample -- with refusal leading to license suspension. When felony charges are involved, the law ought to require a showing that the drug in question contributed to the crash. Motorists involved in fatal accidents who have drugs in their bodies should at least have the chance to rebut the presumption that they were impaired. Driving under the influence is a crime that deserves strict enforcement and stern punishment. Driving long after being under the influence is not the same thing, and it shouldn't be treated as though it were. - --- MAP posted-by: Richard R Smith Jr.