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Operating Under the Influence of Drugs

Operating under the influence of drugs (also known as OUI-Drugs) is a serious crime and a conviction will cause serious, long-lasting criminal and administrative penalties.

Elements of OUI-Drugs

There are three elements that the Commonwealth must prove beyond a reasonable doubt to convict a defendant of operating under the influence of drugs. The Commonwealth must prove the defendant:

  1. Operated (drove or controlled) a motor vehicle (car, truck, or motorcycle);
  2. On a public way (defined as a government-maintained road);
  3. While under the influence of marijuana, cocaine, heroin, a depressant, a narcotic, the vapors of glue, or a stimulant.

In most cases alleging OUI-Drugs, the Commonwealth can easily prove the first two elements. Most OUI-Drugs cases result from police officers stopping motor vehicles, and it’s therefore obvious that the defendant was operating a motor vehicle on a public road. The issue at most OUI-Drugs trials is whether the driver was under the influence of some sort of drug.

Under the Influence of Drugs is a legal term indicating that a driver’s ability to operate safely was impaired by the ingestion of drugs. How does a police officer determine if a motorist is under the influence? Usually the first clue is the manner in which the defendant was driving. A police officer will usually stop any car that is speeding, weaving, crossing over a double yellow line or fog line, or otherwise driving “erratically.” If the driver smells like marijuana, appears disoriented or lethargic, has pinpoint pupils, or has bloodshot eyes, the police officer will request that the driver perform field sobriety tests. Some police officers are specially trained as “drug recognition experts” to analyze drivers’ performance on the field sobriety tests to determine if they are under the influence of drugs. Tests that are commonly given are:

  • Nine Step Walk and Turn Test – the motorist is ordered to walk nine steps in a row on a straight line, without losing balance and while touching heel to toe on every step.  At the end of the nine steps, the motorist must turn around and walk nine steps back (also heel to toe).  If the motorist uses his or her arms for balance, the test is deemed a failure;
  • One-Legged Stand Test – the motorist is required to stand still and lift one leg several inches in the air while counting aloud to a predetermined number;
  • Backwards Counting Test – the motorist is ordered to count backwards, starting with a certain number and ending with a certain number (failing to stop when ordered constitutes a failure); and
  • Alphabet Test – the motorist is ordered to say (not sing) the alphabet.

If, according to the police officer, the motorist failed at least one of the field sobriety tests, he or she will probably be arrested for operating under the influence of drugs.

Drug Recognition Expert

Unlike OUI-Alcohol cases, in cases charging OUI–Drugs, a drug recognition expert will usually be called to testify at trial. Virtually every juror will be familiar with the symptoms of someone who has been drinking alcohol, and an expert is therefore not needed. However, most jurors will not understand the symptoms that result from someone who has been using drugs. Therefore, the drug recognition expert will tell the jury why the symptoms observed by the arresting police officer (like pinpoint pupils, for example) suggest that someone is under the influence of drugs.

Defending the “Under the Influence” Element

When the prosecutor is questioning the police officer at trial, the officer’s observations of the car’s operation and description of the motorist’s performance on the field sobriety tests will sound damning.  However, Attorney Spring will attack the officer’s conclusions on cross-examination with these arguments:

  • Motorists drive erratically for many reasons, the vast majority of which have nothing to do with drugs. Other drivers, bad weather, or a ringing cell phone can distract a motorist and cause speeding, swerving, or other motor vehicle infractions.
  • Just because there is an odor of marijuana coming from a car or a person’s clothes does not mean it was recently smoked. The odor of marijuana can linger for days or weeks.
  • Bloodshot eyes can be caused by many outside influences such as allergies, fatigue, or an illness.  If the motorist has the heat on in the car, his or her eyes might become dry and bloodshot as a result.
  • Police officers administer field sobriety tests on the side of the road.  Most OUI-Drugs arrests happen at night, so it’s dark outside and the weather is often uncomfortably cold, rainy, windy, or snowy.  The police will not close the street to other traffic, so cars will be speeding by within a few feet of the testing area, which is typically not well lit.  The motorist is usually nervous while attempting to perform the tests.  Any attempt to draw an accurate conclusion about a motorist’s sobriety under these circumstances is impossible.

Attorney Chris Spring has won OUI-Drugs cases by making these arguments to the jury.

Additional Defenses

  • Involuntary Intoxication – If a driver’s intoxication was caused involuntarily by ingesting legal prescription medication, he or she is entitled to be found not guilty. This defense is argued when the driver was not warned about the medication’s side effects, had no reason to ask his doctor about possible side effects of the medication, and had no reason to think the medication was going to result in intoxication.
  • United States Attorney General Designation – If the case involves the defendant taking prescription medication before driving, the prosecutor must prove that the Attorney General of the United States has designated the narcotic as having potential for abuse. Attorney Spring recently won an OUI-Drugs case when the prosecutor was unable to prove this fact in front of the jury.

Any conviction for OUI-Drugs will trigger a license suspension and result in pricy fines and fees. The defendant will also be required to participate in a lengthy substance abuse education course. If the defendant is convicted again for any type of OUI case, more serious penalties will be imposed, including possible mandatory jail time.