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DRIVING UNDER THE INFLUENCE OF MARIJUANA AND VEHICULAR MANSLAUGHTER

 

In previous blog posts I discussed driving under the influence of marijuana (cannabis) and the difficulties provingthat a driver was under the influence at the time he or she was driving. The active ingredient in cannabis, THC, stays in a person’s system long after the effect wears offmaking it difficult to prove that a driver was under the influence at the time of driving. And, unlike alcohol, a driver under the influence of marijuana does not always display the obvious symptoms.  Despite these difficulties in proving the offense, drivers are being charged and convicted of driving under the influence of cannabis and in recent years, there have been increasing numbers of vehicular manslaughter while under the influence of marijuana convictions (Penal Code 191.5(a).)

Recently a 24-year-old man was charged in Kern County jury of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence after swerving his car and hitting a teacher who was seven months pregnant, killing both the woman and her unborn child. (The manslaughter charge only attached to the woman due to a “loophole” in California law which may prosecute the murder of a fetus but does not define a fetus as a victim under the manslaughter laws.) The prosecutor alleged that the driver was under the influence of marijuana at the time of the crash. Under California law, if a driver kills another person while driving under the influence, he or she may be charged with grossly negligent manslaughter.  The jury found the young man guilty but convicted him on a lesser charge of negligent vehicular manslaughter rather than with gross negligence.

In San Diego County, a 27-year-old man made a U-turn on the freeway going the wrong way and crashed head on into a motorcyclist, also 27 years old. The crash killed the motorcyclist. It was alleged that the driver was high on marijuana at the time of the crash. The driver was never given a field sobriety tests but laboratory tests were conducted on the driver at the hospital which showed “a higher level of marijuana than they normally see,” according the district attorney prosecuting the case. The driver was convicted by a jury of gross vehicular manslaughter and sentenced by the court to six years in prison. While the driver’s behavior (making a U-turn on a freeway going the wrong way for three miles) certainly suggests he was under the influence of something, apparently the only substance present in his system was the THC. It is hard to imagine that cannabis would cause such dangerous driving.After trial, the prosecutor stated that the toxicologist could not definitively say that the driver’s conduct was attributable to the influence of marijuana.

Yet another young man, a 21-year-old driver in San Jose, was recently charged with gross vehicular manslaughter while under the influence of marijuana after he caused a five-car crash ending in the death of three people. The CHP said the driver, who was speeding and driving recklessly, showed signs of being under the influence of marijuana and on that basis, he was arrested for driving under the influence of marijuana. According to the CHP, marijuana can cause drivers to drive aggressively.  I am unaware of any studies that support this.Most studiesindicate that marijuana affects a driver’s judgment and coordination and can slow reaction times and many studied have found that drivers under the influence of marijuana make drivers more cautious.

As an example of how serious this charge can be, a driver in Bakersfield was recently sentenced to state prison for 20 years to life after being convicted on a charge of second-degree murder (Watson murder) and gross vehicular manslaughter while driving under the influence of marijuana after killing a man when he lost control of his vehicle and hit another car. The only substance showing in the driver’s blood was THC; the driver admitted he had smoked marijuana that morning. The district attorney on the case urged the California Legislature to address the dangers of driving under the influence of marijuana.

These cases and other DUI of marijuana gross vehicular manslaughter prosecutions across the state are problematic. There is still no way to scientifically determine whether a driver is under the influence of marijuana. Just because a driver tests positive for THC does not mean he or she is under the influence since the chemical lingers in a person’s system. And there are serious questionsregarding the validity roadside recognition of marijuana impairment by so-called drug recognition experts.  While these cases are indeed tragic, conviction for vehicular manslaughter while driving under the influence is distinct vehicular manslaughter and is a more serious offense. Prosecuting these cases as gross vehicular manslaughter often relies on subjective interpretations and unproven science. An experience DUI defense attorney may be able to successfully challenge a driving under the influence of marijuana gross vehicular manslaughter charge on that basis.

If you have been charged with vehicular manslaughter or any DUI-related offense, Orange County DUI defense attorney can help. He has been defending individuals charged with these crimes for 25 years and offers a free consultation to evaluate your options. You may reach him at his Irvine office at (949) 474-8008 or by emailing him at bill@williamweinberg.com.