Williams Case Will Test New DUI Law

Williams Case Will Test New DUI Law
Posted by FoM on April 30, 2000 at 12:08:20 PT
Driver's marijuana use at center of debate
Source: Las Vegas SUN
Did Jessica Williams simply fall asleep at the wheel or did the marijuana in her system contribute to her nodding off and mowing down six teenagers in the median of Interstate 15?The answer is anxiously being awaited by more than just those who lost loved ones on March 19. Lawyers around the nation are monitoring the Williams case, a case charged under a new Nevada law that breaks fresh legal ground.
The case centers on the question of whether smoking pot causes a level of impairment that can be measured as precisely as the effects of alcohol on a driver.Critics of the new law say that no one has proven that marijuana users are impaired to such a degree that they are unable to drive without putting others at risk. But Nevada authorities say that the lack of a reliable formula for drug impairment doesn't block their obligation to protect the public.On that Sunday afternoon, Williams smoked marijuana, climbed behind the wheel of a minivan and got on I-15, police say. Two hours later the marijuana caused her to fall asleep at the wheel and drift into the median, prosecutors say.Standing in the median with their backs toward the van were a group of teenagers on probation picking up trash. Five of them died before help arrived. A sixth died the next day.Williams and a passenger suffered minor injuries. Her friend went home. Williams, who turned 21 later that week, went to jail.Up until October, every state in the nation had a law that stated people caught driving with a controlled substance in their body could be convicted of driving under the influence.Some states, such as Colorado, went a step further and defined the term "driving under the influence." A person who is guilty of DUI in Colorado is "substantially incapable, either mentally, or physically, or both mentally and physically, to exercise clear judgment, sufficient physical control or due care in the safe operation of a vehicle."Nevada lawmakers made an even stronger statement. They removed a group of street drugs from the controlled substance list and developed a subsection pertaining to prohibited substances -- drugs that don't have any medicinal value. Drivers with certain amounts of those prohibited substances in their system are now presumed to be driving under the influence.The law went into effect Oct. 1.In the Williams case, blood tests taken an hour after the accident showed that for each milliliter of her blood, she had 5.5 nanograms of marijuana in her system. Under the new law, anyone with 2 nanograms of marijuana per milliliter of blood is presumed to be under the influence of the drug.A nanogram is one billionth of a gram.Williams also had the designer drug Ecstasy in her system, but it falls in the controlled substance category and isn't part of the current debate on the new law.Detractors say the prohibited substance law is unconstitutional and many believe if Williams is convicted, the case will surely go before the Nevada Supreme Court. Although the law doesn't address impairment, the law's opponents say that those arrested under the new statute are automatically presumed to be impaired.How is that fair, critics ask, when there is no scientific evidence that links marijuana to traffic accidents?There have been countless tests performed to show the effects of a given number of alcoholic drinks over a set amount of time. But that isn't the case with marijuana. Critics say no such scientific data exists for the drug."Nevada's law is arbitrary and capricious. There is no relationship between absolute blood levels of THC (the active ingredient of marijuana) and the ability to drive," said Dale Gieringer, the California coordinator for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "Alcohol is the only drug where the blood levels correlate with the impairment of the driver."NORML is a 30-year-old organization dedicated to getting marijuana legalized. In the 1970s its members worked hard to decriminalize minor marijuana offenses and get lower penalties for others. Today its members provide information to the media and lobby legislators.The only tests that show drivers who smoke marijuana are impaired are those that combined marijuana and alcohol, Gieringer said.A marijuana smoker with 2 nanograms of marijuana in his or her system is not impaired, and even a person with 10 to 20 nanograms is only going to be impaired for 10 to 20 minutes, Gieringer said."Marijuana doesn't last in the blood, it peaks very quickly," Gieringer said. "Chronic users have 2 nanograms in their blood 24 to 48 hours afterward and they show no signs of impairment."Mace Yampolsky is a Las Vegas defense attorney who serves on NORML's legal committee. He worries about the fact that traces of marijuana stay in a person's system longer than alcohol."The reason blood is taken within two hours in alcohol cases is so they can ensure the alcohol affected your driving," Yampolsky said. "But with marijuana, it may not have been two or three hours since you smoked it, it may have been a few days and it will still be in your system."And just because a drug is in your system doesn't mean you are unable to drive a car, Yampolsky said.John Watkins, Williams' attorney, agrees.The new law, Watkins said, was passed by lawmakers pressured by proponents of tougher drug laws."Having any detectable amount of a drug in your system is illegal," Watkins said. "It doesn't matter whether you are driving a car or not; they can still punish you because it's still a felony."Rather than come up with a new drug driving law, Watkins said lawmakers would be better off stiffening the penalties for drug cases that don't involve vehicles."Under this law they are punishing you for using the drug, (but) it's not about using it. It should be about whether you used it and if you are impaired," Watkins said.Yampolsky, too, sees the law as politically correct."Driving under the influence, domestic violence and drugs are the Holy Trinity when it comes to the passion of the public," Yampolsky said. "It's easier to defend someone of murder with a self-defense theory than any of the above because jurors are more open to that kind of defense."Chief Deputy District Attorney Gary Booker heads up Clark County's vehicular crimes prosecution unit and will be handling the Williams case.Booker said that just because science hasn't yet come up with a perfect drug-impairment formula doesn't mean the state can't try to protect its citizens.Drug testing is a relatively new science compared to alcohol testing and it has a ways to go to catch up, Booker said. But, just as alcohol testing has become more and more precise, so, too, will drug testing.In fact, when drunken driving laws were first enacted, the legal limit started out at 0.15 because the tests that show people can be impaired at 0.04 hadn't been developed, Booker said.Lawmakers settled on 2 nanograms per milliliter of blood for marijuana so defendants couldn't claim their blood was tainted as the result of second-hand smoke, Booker said. People also won't be able to allege they had cocaine in their system because they handled money used to snort cocaine.Whatever numbers lawmakers decide to use, the fact remains that marijuana alone is a mind-altering substance that does affect people's driving abilities, Booker said."If people have to have alcohol with pot (for it to have an effect) then why the hell are people smoking pot? Of course, marijuana has an effect on you," Booker said. "Some people are trying to make this a debate over the legalization of marijuana and it's not. That's a debate for another day."Paul Snodgrass, who specializes in impaired-driving issues for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in San Francisco, said autopsies clearly show that drugs impair driving abilities.The latest figures indicate that 38 percent of all fatal accidents in the United States involve drunken drivers, and between 11 percent and 22 percent involve drugs and/or alcohol, Snodgrass said.Those numbers have prompted lawmakers to write drug driving laws, Snodgrass said. Those laws are also catching up with drunken driving laws for other reasons.Today's law enforcement officers are receiving additional training and are better able to spot impaired drivers, Snodgrass said. Additionally, more labs are investing in the equipment necessary to test blood and urine.Ernie Floegel, drug-recognition program coordinator for the International Association of Police Chiefs, said 5,000 officers in 34 states, including Nevada, are certified drug-recognition experts.These officers can take a drug driving suspect and put them through a 12-step procedure and determine if they are under the influence of any of seven categories of drugs.The officers look at suspects' eyes, take vital signs, check muscle tone and test their ability to do certain physical activities, Floegel said.And despite what some people may say, those tests are highly accurate when it comes to showing people are impaired and what made them so, Floegel said.In 1993 the Arizona Department of Public Safety conducted a study to gauge the accuracy of drug-recognition experts. Of the 484 suspects who were suspected of having drugs in their system and and who submitted blood samples, 416 of them had one or more drugs in their system.But the clinical laboratory studies on the effects of marijuana muddy the issue.According to a study by Dr. H.W.J. Robbe at the Institute of Human Psychopharmacology of the University of Limburg in Maastricht, the Netherlands, "compared to the effects of alcohol and many medicines (antidepressants and sedatives) on driving ability, the effects of marijuana are not exceptional."The study said "the use of alcohol seems to stimulate risky behavior, whereas the use of marijuana leads to a more prudent driving style."And a study conducted by the University of Adelaide in Australia, showed that "drivers who had smoked marijuana were marginally less likely to have an accident than those who were drug-free."That study suggested that "marijuana smokers were more cautious and drove more slowly because of altered time perception."Even studies sponsored by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration aren't decisive. A 1993 study by the agency indicated that drivers who had smoked marijuana were not impaired. But those who were part of another study released in July were impaired.According to the latest agency study, medicinal drugs had more effects on driving performances than marijuana. It went on to say however, that "if not blatantly dangerous, however, the effects of THC alone in this study were certainly more than slight. They were of sufficient magnitude to warrant concern."The study indicated that people under the influence of THC would be less likely to be able to avoid sudden collisions and "would probably be more likely to fall asleep during prolonged vehicle operation."People driving under the influence of marijuana are unable to perceive and/or respond to changes in the speed of other vehicles and to adjust their own speed accordingly, the study showed.The government study agrees with the other independent studies that combining THC and alcohol is "exceedingly dangerous."As time goes on, Booker said he is sure additional proof will be developed about the effects of marijuana on driving. For now, however, he is content using the tools he has in hand."This law is a crucial new weapon in the arsenal that law enforcement officers and district attorneys have in the battle against drugs," Booker said.Watkins, however, is anxious to see if the new law will stand the test of time. If he has to, he is prepared to take the Williams case far beyond the 8th Judicial District Court."I'm not at all sure the law will pass constitutional muster," Watkins said.Kim Smith covers courts for the Sun. She can be reached at (702) 259-2321 or by e-mail at: kimberly lasvegassun.comPublished: April 30, 2000All contents  1996 - 2000 Las Vegas Sun, Inc.Related Articles:Alcohol a Bigger Factor Than Drug Use in Accidents Induces Minimum Driving Impairment
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Comment #4 posted by ThePatriot on February 16, 2001 at 18:09:04 PT
Nevada's Bolshevik DUI law
The law is called a "per se" law, from the latin meaning "by itself," or "for itself." It is a ridiculous law. Someone who hasn't smoked in a week (and is out of the 19 hr half-life for THC) could be convicted even tho' they were stone cold sober. The real message of this is:DON'T ADMIT TO ANYTHING!!! If arrested in Nv, or anywhere else for that matter, DO NOT SAY "BUT I SMOKED FOUR DAYS AGO!" Keep your mouth shut, just saying the above would automatically convict you. Don't be too clever by half.
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Comment #3 posted by Researcher on April 30, 2000 at 23:22:25 PT
Yeah right. Pot blamed, but extacy used, too!
Wher'e the logic here? Why didn't the headlines read:POT AND EXTACY used? Poor writing skills by a reporter perhaps.
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Comment #2 posted by FoM on April 30, 2000 at 15:21:37 PT
What about the Ecstasy?
I agree Dankhank! What's with the issue being Marijuana not Ecstasy? I have no understanding of what Ecstasy actually does but it sure would be more of a culprit then Marijuana could possibly be. She might have been totally exhausted for any number of different reasons. I hope this case brings the issue of who and when a person is intoxicated to the front. We know we need that to happen.Peace, FoM!
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Comment #1 posted by Dankhank on April 30, 2000 at 14:24:30 PT:
Regarding the woman who smoked pot, had ecstasy in her blood, and killed teens in the median.When was the ecstacy consumed?Had she been at a RAVE, and up all night, the night before?If so, it would markedly have affected her much more than the pot.In fact, smoking the pot may have kept her lucid for the couple of hours it apparentely may have. Had she smoked another, about 90 minutes after the first she probably would not have dozed.In any case, how 'bout that ecstacy?We want to know.
Hemp n Stuff
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