Proving a Vermont Marijuana DUI

Michael was unfamiliar with the rural Vermont road he was traveling on.  On his way to play some football in northern Vermont with a friend, Michael choose to make a pit stop off of exit 5 on the heavily traveled Interstate 91.

According to police affidavits, Michael was pulled over for staying in the passing lane as he approached the onramp to I-91.  The officer who pulled him over, a local sheriff’s deputy, stated that he could smell marijuana coming from the car. Michael admitted to the officer that he was in possession of under an ounce and he handed over the marijuana to the officer.

What could have resulted in a traffic ticket and a fine, turned into a criminal investigation due to the officer suspecting that Michael may be under the influence of marijuana.

Michael was subject to standard alcohol based field sobriety tests, and a roadside breath test, which showed that Michael had no alcohol in his system.

Instead of letting Michael go, the officer arrested him, alleging that he had probable cause to believe that Michael was under the influence of marijuana.  Attempts were made to contact a specially trained Drug Recognition Expert, whose 12 step evaluation is used to issue an opinion on whether a motorist is under the influence of drugs.  No such DRE was available to evaluate Michael on this evening.

Michael was subsequently lodged at the Southern State Correctional Facility, where he was released several hours later after being able to post bail.  Michael’s name and details of his arrest were released to the media and he was issued a citation to appear in court.

Michael hired an attorney and he plead not guilty.  Several months later, the State dismissed all charges against him.

Marijuana and Driving

Michael’s arrest illustrates the significant grey area surrounding marijuana use and its effect on operating a motor vehicle.  State legislators across the country are grappling with marijuana based DUIs as legalization for both medical and recreational use continues to gain momentum.

Currently 29 States have legalized medical marijuana use, while 9 States have enacted laws legalizing recreational use, with three; California, Massachusetts and Vermont enacting legalization that will take effect in 2018.

According to a recent Rand report, which was commissioned by Vermont lawmakers, household surveys found that 12 percent of Vermont’s population ages 12 and older— and nearly 30 percent of those ages 18 to 25—reported using marijuana in the past month.  “We have seen statistically speaking a slight rise in marijuana consumption over the last 15 years,” stated Ben Hansen, an economist with the University of Oregon who has conducted extensive research in the Marijuana market. “Meanwhile, tobacco and alcohol sales have been plummeting during that same time period.”

Proving a Marijuana DUI

The changing legal landscape has placed an urgency on developing reliable investigative criteria for Law Enforcement in order to support an arrest on suspicion of an operator operating under the influence of marijuana.

Vermont Bill H.501, which amended the drugged driving statute in 2013, gave law enforcement significant leeway in making arrest determination. Instead of requiring law enforcement to prove that the operator was “under the influence to a degree that renders the person incapable of driving safely”, lawmakers amended the language to only require that law enforcement prove the operator was “under the influence to the slightest degree”, which is the same standard used to charge individuals of driving under the influence of alcohol.

Lt. John Flannigan, the Drug Evaluation and Classification Coordinator for the State of Vermont, stated that the amendment has given additional power to law enforcement, that allows for the same standard to be used for all substances.  “There is no set criteria for law enforcement to reach a conclusion of impairment,” stated Flannigan, “There is no magic number of clues, in order to make an arrest, an officer must look at the totality of the circumstances”

The totality of the circumstances noted by Flannigan equates to the finding of Probable Cause which is necessary for a citizen to be arrested for suspicion of a committing a criminal offense.  The Vermont Supreme Court in the 2005 case of State v. Goldburg found that  probable cause exists when the affidavit sets forth such information that a judicial officer would reasonably conclude that a crime had been committed …” (internal citations omitted).

Much of the fact finding to support a reasonable conclusion of criminal activity falls on the shoulders of the 52 Drug Recognition Experts located within Vermont, commonly referred to as DREs. “We want to make sure that we provide specialized service to every corner of the State,” stated Lieutenant Flannigan. “We still have areas of need in the state and we are looking to fill those holes.”

Flannigan has acknowledged the evidentiary hurdles law enforcement face when investigating drugged driving cases as many of these cases hinge not only on the DRE opinion but also the results of blood tests, which can be taken several hours after a traffic stop, and analyzed several weeks after the arrest.  “It is very difficult and inefficient to get a timely sample of blood for a drugged driving case,” stated Flannigan. “We are looking at other bodily fluids that are less invasive such as the saliva test, which a lot of states appear to be moving towards.”

State legislators have begun to take steps to incorporate a roadside saliva test into Marijuana based DUIs.  The bill just recently was passed by the House of Representatives.

Although the Bill is meant to address some of the concerns associated with blood tests, the 2017 National Highway Transit Safety Association (NHTSA) report to Congress on Marijuana based DUIs has found “that saliva does not appear to an an accurate and reliable predictor of impairment from THC.”  

Flannigan argues however that these tests are merely used to confirm drug use, which taken with the other observations of a DRE are useful in establishing a case for drugged driving.

“Blood and saliva tests are excellent at identifying the drug that is causing impairment, but there is not a correlation between blood or saliva concentration and drug impairment”, stated Dr. Marilyn Huestis, former Chief of Chemistry and Drug Metabolism at the National Institute of Drug Abuse Intramural Research Program. Her research documented that small amounts of THC can be detected in chronic frequent cannabis users up to 30 days after last use. “There is no blood THC cutoff concentration that documents marijuana impairment in occasional and frequent cannabis users”, “For the occasional user, THC is out of the blood in 6-8 hours, but with the frequent user, THC can be stored for longer periods of time in fat tissue.  Having THC in the blood in the occasional user means recent use, but in the chronic user, it may not represent recent cannabis use. For this reason, I feel it is important to document impairment by a trained police officer or other witness, and then test a biological fluid (either blood or preferably oral fluid or saliva, to indicate which drug is producing the impairment.”

Marijuana and Crash Risk

The 2017 NHTSA report found that there are contradictions in the science based studies that have evaluated marijuana use and the risk it may impose on being involved in a motor vehicle crash.  Some scientific reports have found “minimal or no effect on the likelihood of crash involvement, while others have estimated a doubling in the risk of crash involvement.”

Hansen has stated that these conflicting findings may be due to the reduced risk taking behavior that those under the influence of marijuana partake in when operating a motor vehicle.  “There is limited evidence on the crash risk of marijuana influenced individuals,” stated Hansen. “What has been found is that there is a difference in risk adversity, where with alcohol you see an increase and in marijuana you see a reduction.”

Due to the limited scientific evidence, NHTSA has acknowledged that there is no set standard for marijuana impaired driving and thus, the onus for arrests falls solely on the shoulders of law enforcement.  “In 1908 the Model T was released, in 1910 we had our first drunk driving studies, the first quantification of DUI a level was in 1927 and the first drunk meters were constructed in 1938,” stated Hansen. “However, with marijuana DUIs, we are currently stuck in the 1920s scientifically.”

 

5 takeaways from NHTSA report to Congress on marijuana impairment

The National Highway Transit Safety Association (NHTSA) recently released a report to Congress outlining the research they currently have on Marijuana use and its effect on driving.  In sum, the report found that the effects marijuana have on driver’s ability to operate safely is unsettled. In fact, there is some research out there that shows that those impaired may in fact operate their vehicle in a more careful manner then when sober or under the influence of alcohol.  Here are five takeaways from this report.

1) THC levels found in blood do not equate to a level of impairment:   One of the major tools used by law enforcement is the blood draw.  This can provide concrete proof that a motorist has used marijuana in the past.  However, it is stated several times over in the report, that the science does not support a level of impairment based on the THC level alone.  In fact, low levels of THC can be found in the blood for up to 30 days after use, which makes it difficult to equate a THC level with a level of impairment.

2) Some tests have shown that those under the influence of marijuana drive more carefully then those who are sober.  An interesting study was  released in 2015 that marijuana may in fact mitigate risky driving by those under the influence of alcohol.  It further found that those under the influence of marijuana tended to drive slower and at farther distances from a vehicle in front of them.

3) Specific cues of marijuana impairment are not available to detect impairment with reasonable certainty:  NHTSA has admitted that unlike with alcohol, law enforcement cannot point to a series of standardized evidentiary cues that can per-se, lead them to a conclusion marijuana impairment.

4) Marijuana’s role in causing crashes is “less clear”:  NHTSA has admitted in their report that it is difficult to correlate the cause of crashes due to marijuana impairment.  The hurdles to show that marijuana impairment does in fact increase the risk of a crash are the same in which NHTSA acknowledged with regards to THC levels in the blood (i.e. they do not equate to a level of impairment).  Further, the presence of THC in the blood for 30 days, skews any data they may have that states that marijuana impairment was in fact the cause of the CRASH.

5) Impairment Curve of Marijuana is sudden:  With alcohol, there has long been established a BAC curve, that shows how alcohol is processed.  Customarily, a peak BAC is reached 20 minutes after the last drink has been consumed.  With marijuana, it is much more difficult to calculate.  According to NHTSA, peak impairment occurs immediately after smoking and drops significantly thereafter.  This curve is heavily dependent on the user, as those who are regular consumers may show far less signs of impairment even after consuming large doses then those who use less consistently.

The overall takeaways from this Marijuana report, is that much is still to be learned about the effects of Marijuana and driving.  Despite this significant gap in knowledge however, one thing was made crystal clear by NHTSA’s report.  They want to see more Drug Recognition Experts trained and on Vermont roads.  This, with the impending legalization bill, will likely result in an increase in Vermont DUI-Marijuana arrests, despite the evidence that supports these arrests remaining unsettled.

Evan Chadwick Receives Advanced Level Training on Defending Against Hospital Blood Tests

In furtherance of advancing his proficiency in DUI defense, Vermont DUI attorney Evan Chadwick recently received advanced level training on defending against hospital blood tests which are often secured by law enforcement during their DUI-drug and accident based DUI-alcohol investigations.

“Reviewing every aspect of the blood draw and analysis is a key component to defending DUI offenses”, stated Attorney Chadwick.  “The science and law behind these analysis are constantly evolving and we, as attorneys, need to stay ahead of the curve so that we can better understand the science that supports and/or undermines the reliability of these tests.”

For more information on the training received by Attorney Chadwick, click HERE.

 

 

 

Field sobriety tests invalid in determining whether driver is intoxicated by marijuana

With the legalization of marijuana in Massachusetts and Maine and the decriminalization of possession of small amounts of marijuana in Vermont and New Hampshire a new legal front has been established in determining how to measure an individual’s level of impairment when operating a motor vehicle.  The lack of specific scientific evidence as to how to detect impairment is one of the major reasons Vermont governor Phil Scott vetoed a bill to legalize possession of marijuana last year and continues to be a huge concern for Vermont law enforcement in their ability to arrest individuals for driving under the influence of marijuana or other drugs.

The Massachusetts Supreme Court decision in COMMONWEALTH V. GERHARD has now limited police officer’s ability to use the standardized field sobriety tests as evidence of drug impairment, tests which have long been validated to detect alcohol impairment.

“The research on the efficacy of FSTs to measure marijuana impairment has produced highly disparate results. Some studies have shown no correlation between inadequate performance on FSTs and the consumption of marijuana; other studies have shown some correlation with certain FSTs, but not with others; and yet other studies have shown a correlation with all of the most frequently used FSTs.”

As has been litigated in Vermont Courts (and recently won by Attorney Evan Chadwick in a drugged driving case), a law enforcement officer who is not a certified Drug Recognition Expert should not be able to  testify as to their opinion of impairment when investigating an individual for DUI-Drugs .  The Gearhardt decision adds an extra layer of protection for these types of investigations by limiting what evidence can be presented on the roadside investigation.

Vermont Attorney Evan Chadwick Successfully Completes Drug Recognition Expert Training

Attorney Evan Chadwick of Chadwick Law, traveled to Alpharetta Georgia in order to participate in a vigorous three day training regarding the process and science behind a Drug Recognition Evaluation that accompanies many Vermont DUI prosecutions.

Attorney Chadwick received a thorough overview in the 2015 NHTSA/IACP DRE Pre-School & DRE 7-Day training curriculum that officers attend nationwide. Emphasis was made on analyzing a DRE case file, to include, the DRE Face Sheet & DRE Narrative report, how to compare the two with one another and with the Drug Symptomology Chart, as well as emphasis on each specific step involved in a 12-step DRE evaluation. Time was also be spent covering the IACP’s rules and regulations that officers are required to follow in order to become certified and to recertify as a DRE.

“The training I received was essential in furthering my understanding of the science behind a Drug Recognition Evaluation and what errors officers make in conducting these evaluations”, stated Attorney Chadwick. “It is a training that anyone who is serious about defending DUIs in Vermont needs to take in order to best serve their clients”.

Smell of marijuana still enough for Vermont vehicle search

An officer needs probable cause  in order to be to search a vehicle without the owner’s consent.  Despite Vermont decriminalizing the possession of under an ounce of marijuana in 2013, the smell of marijuana alone still grants law enforcement the probable cause they need to request a search.  This reality was recently reinforced in Judge Helen’s Toor’s district court decision denying  a Rutland man’s motion to suppress the evidence seized as a result of the search.  “Vermont’s decriminalization statute explicitly states that it leaves unchanged marijuana’s ability to furnish probable cause. The national consensus is that the mere smell of marijuana supports probable cause.”  Although still currently good law in Vermont, Toor’s decision has since been appealed to the Vermont Supreme Court.

Further clarification as to the sniff test may be supported by recent decisions in Massachusetts and Colorado, that have found that the oder of marijuana alone does not give an officer probable cause.  The Massachusetts case is especially important to Vermont as at the time of the decision, possession of one ounce or less of marijuana was considered a civil infraction in Massachusetts as it is considered in Vermont.  “[W]e no longer consider the “strong” or “very strong” smell of unburnt marijuana to provide probable cause to believe that a criminal amount of the drug is present.  Commonwealth v. Rodriguez.

The wild card in the entire calculus is the fact that it is all but assured that Vermont will legalize recreational marijuana use in the near future.  In 2017, a legalization bill made it all the way to Governor Phil Scott’s desk before he vetoed it, stating that further study was needed before he signed the bill into law.  Thus, if legalization does occur, the Vermont courts may look more towards the recent decisions in Colorado to guide them in reviewing the smell test as a sole basis for a search.  “Because Amendment 64 legalized possession for personal use of one ounce or less of marijuana by persons 21 years of age or older in Colorado, it is no longer accurate to say, at least as a matter of state law, that an alert by a dog which can detect marijuana — but not specific amounts — can reveal only the presence of ‘contraband,’”.  Colorado v. McKnight

If Vermont does pass a marijuana legalization bill, expect further challenges to law enforcement’s ability to decipher criminal behavior from that of legal, including, but not limited to their ability to tell the difference between a legal amount of marijuana and that which surpasses the criminal threshold.

 

 

DUI checkpoints net more than just DUIs

checkpoint

The sign should read, “law compliance checkpoint ahead”, as officers are on the lookout for all types of potential criminal offenses.

A favorite tool for law enforcement in detecting drivers operating under the influence of alcohol, DUI checkpoints have long been effective in law enforcement netting arrests on busy holiday weekends such as Memorial Day and the 4th of July.  However, drivers would be remiss to believe that these checkpoints are present only to detect potential alcohol based offenses along busy Vermont roads.  Instead, in recent years, law enforcement have honed their skills to detect other offenses, such as drug consumption that can also result in a motorist be inglead off to the mobile command post to be processed for a criminal offense.

Of the most common offenses detected by law enforcement is the possession and consumption of marijuana.  Although possession of small amounts of marijuana have been decriminalized (resulting in only a civil infraction, not a criminal citation for possession of under 1 oz.), the detection of marijuana can now lead to not only a hefty fine, but also increased scrutiny by law enforcement to see if the operator is under the influence of marijuana while driving the motor vehicle.  Although this is not your standard run of the mill DUI investigation, drug recognition experts are being trained at increased levels to be able to respond quickly to a report of a potential driving while high infraction.

These offenses carry with them the same penalties as a driving under the influence of alcohol charge (maximum of 2 years in jail and loss of license for up to 6 months).  Further, even if a motorist is found not be under the influence of marijuana, but is under the age of 21, they can face up to a 6 month license suspension as a result of merely possession a small amount of marijuana.

DUI checkpoints are misleading in name and in purpose.  Law enforcement use these checkpoints to have unfettered brief contact with a magnitude of individuals to detect and arrest those suspected of violating Vermont laws.  Thus, when approaching one of these checkpoints it is important to know that all actions committed by the driver will be heavily scrutinized and that you will not be off the hook if you have not consumed alcohol, but may have something else of interest in the vehicle that a well trained Vermont law enforcement officer may be able to detect.

The battle over the saliva test in Vermont drugged driving

Vermont lawmakers continue to struggle with finding the correct balance in prosecuting motorists who may be under the influence of marijuana or other drugs while operating a motor vehicle.  Vermont law enforcement has claimed that there is a saliva test that can be implemented in order to prove that a motorist has marijuana in their system.  However, what lawmakers continue to struggle with is determining whether that detection alone, satisfies the DUI statute, which states that the presence of the drug must effect the motorist’s ability to operate their motor vehicle safely.

In an effort to address the vague nature of the current DUI-drugs statute, the Vermont legislature introduced a bill in 2014 that lowered the standard of proving a Drugged Driving charge by being able to prove that the operator was under the influence to “the slightest degree”.  However, several lawmakers in the Judiciary Committee, including Chair, Jeanette White: D-Windham County, stated that this standard cast the net too wide.

In an effort to compromise, language to the bill was introduced that would allow someone to be arrested for Drugged Driving if prosecutors could show that drug use “interferes with safe operation of a vehicle in the slightest degree.”.

If this language is in fact adopted, it still remaining unclear exactly how law enforcement will be able to detect this level of impairment beyond the flawed Drug Recognition Expert (DRE) standard that they have used to this day.  John Flannigan, a Lieutenant with the Vermont State Police, has stated that a roadside saliva test may in fact be the answer to this question.

Flannigan’s argument is that the saliva test, which is able to detect the presence of certain drugs, including marijuana, along with the DRE testimony, would be sufficient to show impairment.

However, even with this additional evidence, under the revised drugged driving bill, law enforcement would still need to show that the motorist’s impairment “slightly” effected their ability to operate a motor vehicle safely.  Although the saliva tests and DRE testimony may be sufficient to arrest an individual, much remains to be seen if these charges can actually stick when individual cases maker their way through the Vermont Judicial system.

 

 

What is a Vermont DRE?

DRE stands for drug recognition expert.  It is an attempt by Vermont law enforcement to combat the growing concern of individuals driving a motor vehicle while under the influence of marijuana or other drugs, which is otherwise known as Driving While High (DWH).  Here is how it works.

A motorist will get pulled over by law enforcement and during their initial interaction, law enforcement will note that they recognize certain clues of impairment (blood shot eyes, confusion, seating, nervousness etc..)  Based on these observations, the officer will inquire if the motorist has consumed any alcohol or drugs recently.  If the motorist admits to some form of consumption of drugs, the officer may, along with their observations, have enough evidence to perform certain tests aimed at detecting drug impairment.

In order to perform these tests, an officer needs to have specialized training that certifies them as a DRE.  Although prosecutors have attempted to enter DRE testimony into evidence at trial, there is still substantial question as to whether the training the officers have received is sufficient to qualify them as an expert and whether their testimony alone is sufficient to uphold a conviction for DWH.

According to the Governor’s Highway Safety Program, there are currently 35 officers across the State of Vermont that have been certified as a Vermont Drug Recognition Expert, with the aim of having an increased number of officers take the two day training each year.  The  additional training offered to law enforcement is beginning to see dividends for enforcing DWH laws as in 2014 it was reported that officers conducted 214 evaluations, a steady increase from previous years.

With marijuana legalization making its way through the Vermont legislature and additional tools being added to the arsenal of Vermont law enforcement, motorists will need to become increasingly cautious as to their driving if they have ingested drugs or alcohol recently. It appears that Drug Recognition Experts are only one small part of a significantly wider net law enforcement will be casting when they commence a DWH or DWI investigation that could ensnare many motorists who do now know the DWH laws in the State of Vermont.