Pubdate: Wed, 23 Apr 2014
Source: Times Argus (Barre, VT)
Copyright: 2014 Times Argus


MONTPELIER - A Senate panel is looking to wrap up work on a drugged 
driving bill this week, but questions remain on how the changes it 
would make in state law would affect Vermonters.

Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn said current law prohibits 
operation of a vehicle when a person is under the influence of a drug 
"to a degree which renders the person incapable of driving safely."

Law enforcement is looking to prohibit driving while under the 
influence of a drug "in the slightest degree."

The language would mirror the law on drinking and driving, Flynn told 
the Judiciary Committee.

"What we're looking to do is have the same standard, essentially, 
that we have for alcohol be applied to drugs," Flynn said.

The current statutory language is "an impossible standard," Flynn 
said, and it typically requires some type of erratic driving to 
prove. The change would provide police and prosecutors with a better 
ability to charge and convict those driving under the influence of 
drugs, he said.

Those statements caught the attention of Sen. Alice Nitka, D-Windsor 
County. "Are you saying there should be simply random stops even 
though there's not a reason to?" she asked.

Flynn said law enforcement is not seeking the ability to randomly 
stop motorists.

"I never said there should be random stops, and I would never support 
that," he said. "If I implied for one moment that we should have 
random stops, then I didn't explain it well."

However, "a motor vehicle stop many times consists of more that just 
walking up to a vehicle and asking for the license and registration," 
Flynn said.

Interacting with drivers sometimes leads to suspicion of driving 
under the influence, he said.

"When you talk to people there are times when you pick up a number of 
clues that cause you to be suspicious and say, 'Do I need to look 
into this more?'" he said. "This isn't about the ability to stop 
someone and ask them questions. This is the ability ... to be able to 
charge a person and prosecute it."

Matthew Valerio, the state's defender general, is hoping lawmakers 
won't make the changes sought by law enforcement. There are currently 
few drugged driving cases in the state, he said, and changing the 
statute would result in a significant increase.

"When you tinker, you tinker at great risk," Valerio warned.

The proposed language would "cast a much wider net" of "anybody who 
might be unsafe because they have some drug in their system that is 
influencing their behavior," Valerio said.

"What I want to do, and what I think most people would like to see, 
is we get the people who are actually doing something wrong," he said.

Valerio also called into question the validity of specially trained 
law enforcement officers known as drug recognition experts.

"In some circles it's called some of the worst junk science that you 
can come across in trying to determine whether or not someone is 
under the influence of drugs," he said.

Flynn, after Tuesday's hearing, rejected Valerio's take on recognition experts.

"That is not junk science," he said. "It's reading physiological 
signs that are shown to demonstrate impairment. I think just the 
statement that it's junk science shows that he's really not aware 
what the science is that supports it."

Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington County, the committee chairman, said 
the legislation is a top priority for the committee in the final 
weeks of the legislative session. He said the committee is planning 
to vote on the bill Thursday.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom