A look at efforts to catch drugged drivers in Vermont
WCAX / by Kyle Midura/ Jul 19, 2017
Much of the state’s marijuana legalization debate swirls around safety on the roadway. Our Kyle Midura explains just how Vermont goes after stoned drivers now and whether it works.
Vt. State Police Tpr. Jay Riggen: How much dope did you smoke? Your eyes are all screwed up.
Driver: Just a little bit. A couple of rolls.
This is what it looks like when a trooper trained in drug recognition spots a driver they believe to be under the influence. There’s the standard field sobriety test and a Breathalyzer to determine if alcohol is present. Officers trained in drug recognition first observe driving before a stop, then the operator, before administering roadside tests. Along with the smell associated with some drugs, they look to the eyes as part of a 12-step process to assess vital signs and mental function.
“The big idea here in drug impairment enforcement is this idea of totality of the circumstances,” Riggen said.
In this case, Riggen has enough with the admission and signs of impairment to pull the driver off the road.
“I’m going to place you under arrest for driving under the influence of drugs,” Riggen told the driver.
But these drugged-driving cases can be tough to prosecute.
“I found that juries are pretty open to the concept of people being impaired, they just don’t know what to look for,” Addison County State’s Attorney Dennis Wygmans said.
Wygmans says video of a stop doesn’t fully capture all the subtle signs of intoxication. And unlike with alcohol, there’s little science and no law in Vermont specifying a blood concentration level for impairment.
There is a limit in Colorado for marijuana, though even law enforcement questions the standard’s ability to accurately account for impairment.
Wygmans says drug recognition experts or DREs know the signs and symptoms of impaired driving but also need more experience translating what they’re seeing and the science behind their observations to juries.
“I think they’ll get better over time and we certainly would love it if Department of Public Safety would engage in that sort of a practice more meaningfully,” Wygmans said.
We analyzed court records from 2016. Prosecutors leveled 138 DUI cases involving drugs, including some that involved alcohol, as well. Of those, 83 resulted in a DUI conviction and 55 were dismissed.
That stop Riggen made in this story ultimately resulted in a careless and negligent operation conviction.
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