Pubdate: Fri, 05 Aug 2011
Source: Chicago Tribune (IL)
Copyright: 2011 Chicago Tribune Company


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

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.