Thursday, February 21, 2013

Orange County Lawmaker Proposes New Rules for Stoned Driving

Updated June 12, 2013: Correa's proposed law, SB 289, died in committee without any action by the State Senate.  A crucial deadline has passed.  The bill will, therefore, not be heard by the Assembly.  Thank you to all who took the time to tell your State Senators to keep their hands off of medical marijuana. 

State Senator Lou Correa (D - Santa Ana) has introduced new legislation that would create a zero-tolerance "per se" law for driving under the influence of any drug classified in schedules I, II, III or IV of the Controlled Substances Act.  This means that it would be a crime (DUI, to be exact) for ANY person (including qualified medical marijuana patients) to operate a motor vehicle in the State of California with ANY measurable amount of ANY drug in his or her system, regardless of whether or not that drug actually impaired the driver's ability to safely operate a car.

As previously discussed on this blog, a typical "alcohol" DUI includes 2 counts: the "a" count and the "b" count.  The "a" count is the crime of driving a car while "impaired" by drugs, alcohol, or the combined influence of drugs and alcohol.  To be guilty of the "a" count, the DA must prove that drugs, alcohol or their combined influence rendered you "unsafe" to drive a car, regardless of the actual levels of drugs or alcohol in your system.  It is already illegal in California to drive a car while dangerously stoned -- or dangerously impaired by any drug for that matter.  I have defended individuals who were accused of driving while "impaired" by chemotherapy drugs.

The "b" count is the crime of operating a car while your blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) is greater than 0.08 % -- this is called the "per se count".  Obviously, in the typical DUI case, the defendant is guilty of both the "a" and the "b" counts because he is unsafe behind the wheel AND his BAC is > 0.08 %.  A stoned driver is guilty of only the "a" count if he is impaired by marijuana and his BAC is less than 0.08 %.

Marijuana DUIs are obviously tricky, therefore, because there is no legal limit to define when a person is too stoned to drive.  Prosecutors prove marijuana DUIs by introducing evidence of bad driving (swerving, drifting within a lane, stopping at a green light, etc.), by showing poor performance on field sobriety tests (showing that the defendant was disoriented and had difficulty following simple instructions) and by introducing toxicology results showing a specific concentration of THC in a subject's blood.  Since there is no limit for THC in blood and because THC affects individual users so differently, THC levels alone really prove nothing.  The jury must decide whether the defendant was "impaired" by marijuana and, therefore, "unsafe" to operate a vehicle because of marijuana impairment.  If the jury finds that the defendant is "unsafe" because of marijuana intoxication, he is guilty of a DUI with all of the penalties that a DUI conviction carries.

This proposed new legislation would finally create a legal limit to guide the courts in determining whether or not an individual is too stoned to legally drive.  Makes sense, right?  Some clarification of the law could bring uniformity to the way that marijuana DUIs are handled and would give users a better idea of when they are legally prohibited from driving.  Unfortunately, the proposed limit for THC in blood is exactly 0.  Under this law, a person would be guilty of DUI if he or she smoked marijuana last week and any trace of that marijuana were detectable in a blood test.  The DA would not need to prove that the defendant was impaired in any way by the presence of marijuana, only that THC was present in some trace level.

If passed, the proposed law would effectively prohibit medical marijuana patients from EVER operating a car in California since even weekly users would ALWAYS have some measurable traces of THC in their blood.

I'm not sure what this law is based on, but it's sure not science, common sense or compassion.  The proposed legislation appears to be a shameless reach for publicity by an unscrupulous politician with ulterior motives.  It's no secret that Correa has big political ambitions in California.  He has already started raising money to replace Kamala Harris as Attorney General in the next election.  This bill looks like a cheap attempt to get his name into headlines and garner some support from police unions around the state at the expense of seriously ill medical marijuana patients.  Of course, more laws mean more work to keep cops busy, and that means more overtime and more money for the unions.  See how science, common sense and compassion go right out the window in politics?

Tell Correa to leave his hands off of marijuana.  We don't need any more asinine laws to fill our already-crowded jails with even more harmless, non-violent offenders.

Lou Correa can be reached in Santa Ana at (714) 558-4400 or in Sacramento at (916) 651-4034.