When most people hear about an arrest for driving under the influence, they think that the driver had too much to drink. However, the number of fatal accidents caused by drivers who are under the influence of drugs has increased over the past five years. With this number on the rise, officials are more focused on reducing the number of drugged drivers on roadways.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released a study that took a deeper look at the issue. It examined drug tests that were conducted after drivers were killed in accidents. While the report did not specify exactly which drugs were present, law enforcement officers have reported that more and more drivers have been found to be under the influence of marijuana.
The 2009, there were 21,798 fatally-injured drivers. Drug tests were administered to 63 percent of those drivers. When the test results were complete, 18 percent of those tests were positive, indicating the presence of drugs. In New Jersey, the number rose to 23 percent, as 71 out of 314 drivers fatally injured tested positive.
The test results do not necessarily mean that a driver was impaired, it just means that the drug was present in his or her system. Not all drivers who died in traffic accidents were able to be tested. Certain drugs like nicotine and aspirin were excluded, as were any drugs used in medical care that injured drivers received.
The big question that states are facing is how to aggressively deal with this issue. In order to determine if a driver has consumed too much alcohol, blood or breath tests are used. For drugged drivers, urine tests must be used to accurately check for the presence of drugs. Spotting drugged drivers will require officers to undergo additional training.
The New Jersey Supreme Court addressed this issue in the case State V. Bealor. A motorist, Justin Bealor, was spotted weaving across lanes of traffic, and driving the wrong way down a one-way street. When the vehicle was stopped, the driver told the state troopers that he only had a few beers that evening. During a pat down for weapons, the officers discovered a marijuana pipe.
Bealor was taken to the station, where police took a urine sample. During his time at the station, the officers alleged that Bealor was uncooperative, which they attributed as evidence of his intoxication. Two scientific experts examined Bealor’s urine, and indicated that marijuana was present in his system as well as on the pipe in his pocket at the time of the stop. Bealor was then convicted of driving under the influence as a result.
The question for the Court concerned the lack of expert testimony to establish that Bealor was intoxicated due to the marijuana use. In driving under the influence of alcohol cases, layperson opinion testimony is enough to prove intoxication. The state did not present any expert testimony that would demonstrate that Bealor was in fact impaired, or any testimony regarding the amount of marijuana in his system.
The Court concluded that nonexpert opinion testimony by itself is not enough to establish impairment in cases concerning driving under the influence of drugs. Prosecutors must also show the presence of drugs in the system by blood or urine tests, and present additional evidence that demonstrates intoxication.
Additionally, many police departments have had an officer trained as a Drug Recognition Expert (DRE). These officers have had sufficient experience in detecting intoxication due to drug use. This information along with a drug test can be critical to establishing that a driver was impaired.
With drug tests playing such a crucial role in driving under the influence of drugs cases, it is important to closely examine the results of the test. If the test was ordered or conducted under improper circumstances, it could potentially be inadmissible. Without this evidence it will be extremely difficult for prosecutors to obtain a conviction in these cases.
Because these investigatory tactics are somewhat new, many officers may not know exactly what to look for when they make a stop. With increased training, more of these cases could be entering into the system. If you have been charged with driving under the influence of drugs, speak to an experienced criminal defense attorney in your area.