Arizona's Court of Appeals ruled yesterday that drivers found to have traces of THC can be subject for a DUI arrest. The ruling overturns two earlier dismissals by Maricopa County judges.
Much of what I've read about this implies that traces of marijuana can lead to a DUI arrest. This is a bit simplified; what the court ruled is that is evidence of drug use can bump a simple traffic stop into a DUI, regardless of whether or not the drug is causing impaired driving.
The case, Montgomery vs Harris, stems from a 2010 traffic stop in Maricopa County for speeding and driving in an unsafe manner. The driver, Hrach Shilgevorkyan, agreed to a blood test that revealed traces of carboxy-THC, which appears after marijuana has been broken down in the system and is no longer active. There was no evidence of hydroxy-THC, which enters the body soon after using marijuana and can cause impaired driving.
Carboxy-THC, which can stay in the body for weeks after exposure to marijuana, does not affect normal capabilities. But its presence in Shilgevorkyan was enough for a DUI arrest.
Shilgevorkyan argued in Maricopa County Justice Courts on the lack of chemical evidence for impairment and asked for and received a dismissal on the DUI charge. The state appealed to Superior Court. That court examined the wording in the law and concluded that the Legislature did not intend to include all metabolic derivatives from drugs--including those that are inactive--to be cause for a DUI arrest.
The state then appealed to the Court of Appeals, where it finally found a friendlier ear.
The Court struck down the defense's two major points:
- The Arizona law as written cites the presence of a metabolite to allow a DUI arrest. The defendant argued that carboxy-THC is not an active metabolite. The Court ruled that the Legislature was not splitting hairs between active and inactive metabolites.
- The court also rejected the notion that the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act shows legislative intent to classify inactive metabolites as evidence of impairment. It correctly pointed out that the Act came about as a voter-approved initiative, not through the legislative process.
Writing for the Court, Judge Michael J. Brown cited prior cases in which it allowed the Legislature's broad definition of drugs prohibited in drivers. "We determined that the legislative ban extends to all substances, whether capable of causing impairment or not," one such case concluded. With Judges Andrew W. Gould and Donn Kessler concurring, the Court reversed the Superior Court ruling.
Michael Alarid III, who represents the defendant, told the Associated Press that he intends to appeal to the Arizona Supreme Court.
No one should really be surprised that Arizona would take a hard approach to the evidence of drug use in a driver pulled over for speeding and unsafe driving. What is more worrisome is the Appeals Court's acceptance that any metabolic evidence is enough for a DUI conviction.
Medical marijuana is legal in Arizona and California. Colorado and Washington now permit personal use. The likelihood is that more drivers will be found with inactive THC in their blood systems, leading to more traffic arrests getting bumped into a DUI status.
What needs to be argued is whether the existence of the Medical Marijuana Act gives some immunity to drivers who hold a medical marijuana card. Some defense attorneys argue that it does. It's clear that the law prohibits impaired driving and driving under the influence of any illegal drug, but the AMMA muddies the water where marijuana is concerned.
Perhaps the solution is to amend the law to specify the presence of substances that actively cause an impairment. That means more expensive tests, of course, but can we really say that it's too expensive to properly dispense justice?
You can read the decision here; click on Decisions Search and enter case number 1 CA-SA 12-0211. Tell me what you think!