Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Driving Under the Influence of Marijuana in Orange County

The Orange County District Attorney's Office has taken an aggressive approach to cracking down on drivers who operate vehicles while under the influence of marijuana and other drugs. Their office now employs specially-trained prosecutors who are exclusively assigned to handle cases involving driving under the influence of drugs (or "DUID"). They take these matters seriously. You should too.

Even though marijuana is now legal for adults to use and possess in California, it is still illegal to operate a vehicle while the driver is under the influence of marijuana. I always tell my clients to think of marijuana like alcohol: I might be allowed to legally possess alcohol (because I'm an adult), but I'm not allowed to drive a car while I'm dangerously impaired. I can drink one beer and legally drive a car -- I can probably drink several beers and still drive a car safely and legally. But I cannot drive a car if my blood alcohol concentration is greater than 0.08%.

Unlike alcohol, however, there is no legal limit to clearly define when a driver is too stoned to get behind the wheel. In order to be found guilty of driving under the influence of marijuana, the District Attorney must prove that a driver was "impaired" by the drug to such a degree that he or she was unable to safely operate a vehicle. This is where it gets complicated.

Trying to determine a person's precise degree of marijuana impairment is difficult for several reasons. First, marijuana affects users differently, depending on a person's relative experience with the drug, the particular strain of marijuana, the method of ingestion (smoked, eaten or vaporized), and the user's unique psycho-physiology. Of course, an inexperienced user might have a very strong reaction to a dosage that Willie Nelson ingests before breakfast. See Maureen Dowd's piece in The New York Times from last year.

Also, unlike alcohol, peak blood-THC concentrations do not necessarily correlate with peak impairment. A toxicology report might reveal that a subject had a particular level of THC in his or her blood within an hour of being arrested, but this number is not very valuable in helping to determine the subject's actual degree of impairment at the time of driving.

Standardized Field Sobriety Tests ("the roadside Olympics") are designed and intended to detect drivers who are impaired by alcohol, not marijuana. During these tests, police are looking for the tell-tale signs that a suspect is too drunk to drive -- poor balance / coordination, slurred speech, etc. Since marijuana does not affect balance and coordination like alcohol, those tests are not reliable indicators of marijuana intoxication.

Cases of alleged driving under the influence of marijuana typically turn on the police officer's opinions based on his own observations before and after the traffic stop. These impressions are obviously very subjective and open to interpretation. The officer will testify that the subject "appeared disoriented" and was either "too relaxed" or "too nervous" (see the catch-22?). Prosecutors will also attempt to prove impairment by introducing evidence of bad driving (either too fast or too slow, following too closely to far, etc.). Any maneuver you make (or don't make) will be introduced as "proof" of marijuana impairment.

Our office has extensive experience defending "driving under the influence of marijuana" cases in Orange County and surrounding areas. Don't let the DA railroad you into a bad deal. If you or a loved one is accused of DUI for alcohol, marijuana or any other drug, call us for a free consultation.  Ask for John. (714) 449 3335.

Thanks for reading.

Fullerton DUI Lawyer