Drugged drivers: Why is it so hard to get DUI convictions?

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by Sybil Hoffman

azfamily.com

Posted on August 29, 2011 at 10:21 AM

Updated Monday, Aug 29 at 10:40 AM

PHOENIX -- Drugged driving is not only dangerous, it can be deadly. But some drivers suspected of being high on prescription medications are managing to escape conviction.

Sgt. Paul White has been a drug recognition expert for the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office for nearly two decades. As a DRE, it’s his job to evaluate and then determine what impaired drivers are taking.

"Somebody may have a level of medications in them, but are they impaired? And that's where the DRE is going to come into play,” White explained.

White was the DRE who evaluated Nicole Moon, 21, after she plowed into a Salt River Police Department motorcycle officer and another car on Loop101. The officer was seriously injured in the December crash.

According to Maricopa County Superior Court records, Moon admitted she was taking several drugs not even prescribed to her, everything from Xanax to Percocet and Soma.

"I've conducted over 4,000 drug evaluations on individuals and I would place the impairment that I observed that night in the category of probably the top five of most-impaired individuals I've seen,” White said.

While White believes Moon, who goes on trial next month, was severely impaired that night, she had very little alcohol in her system. Court records show she blew a 0.018.

In Arizona, your license is automatically suspended when you are considered legally drunk, meaning your blood alcohol level is 0.08.

Because Moon wasn’t impaired by alcohol, but rather suspected of being high on a cocktail of prescription drugs, under the law, she was allowed to get back behind the wheel.

"With drugs, whether they're prescription or illegal drugs, that 90-day suspension does not go into effect until there is a conviction for the DUI,” explained Aaron Harder, Bureau Chief for the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office Vehicular Crimes Unit.

Harder admits prosecuting prescription-drug cases is difficult in part because unlike alcohol, experts haven’t agreed on what amount of prescription drugs causes impairment.

"If the scientific community does the studies and comes up with a particular level that they can say everybody is impaired to operate a motor vehicle at that point, would that help? It would help tremendously for our cases, particularly for prescription-drug cases,” Harder said.

White isn’t optimistic that will ever happen.

"We haven't been able to make the scientific community focus on that because again there are a lot of new drugs that are hitting the market every day and to try to keep up with that, it's impossible,” he said.

Another obstacle that prosecutors trying these cases face is overcoming the belief prescription drugs are legitimate medication.

"We've lost cases where they've shown impairment but with the prescription drugs sometimes a jury doesn't want to you know convict a person because they're on prescription drugs," Harder said.

White agrees. It’s a belief he fights every day.

“Impaired driving is a murder in progress,” he said.

Researchers say coming up with a set level at which prescription drugs cause impairment is difficult at best because there are some many factors that come into play, including the chemistry of each specific drug, potential drug interactions and even an individual’s own body chemistry.

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