A tragic rollover crash near Steamboat Springs has left one college student dead and two others seriously injured. No citations have been issued, but speed and drug impairment are suspected as factors in the crash. The three CU-Boulder students had been traveling on U.S. Highway 40 in a Jeep SUV when the driver (male) veered off the left side of the road, losing control on an embankment. The vehicle hit a fence and rolled twice. One female passenger was not wearing a seatbelt and was ejected. She was pronounced dead on the scene. The other female passenger and the driver were both wearing seatbelts and were hospitalized with serious injuries.
Drugs and Impairment
Because we do not yet know what drug or combination of drugs are suspected to be involved here or in what concentrations, we cannot speculate or prejudge as to what effect they may have had on the accident or what defenses the driver may have available. However, the case does present an opportunity to explain some of the basics of Colorado DUI-D law.
The mere presence of any illegal drug in the driver’s system is enough to establish an inference of DUI. The jury is not required to form this conclusion, and when levels are low, prosecutors will often get toxicologists involved to testify as to the effects. However, it generally requires a good defense and expert testimony to challenge this inference.
Proving DUI in the case of legally obtained prescription drugs is a much more fact-sensitive inquiry. It will generally involve expert toxicologists discussing the effects of specific drugs or combinations thereof, as well as some wrangling over what levels establish intoxication. Evidence as to actual driving performance is also important in these cases because of the variety of possible drug combinations and the absence of any per se levels to establish a presumption of intoxication.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember in DUI cases involving prescription drugs is that, if intoxication is established, having a prescription to legally take the drug is not a defense to DUI. It is the user’s responsibility to know whether a prescription drug affects their driving abilities and to take precautions. As stated in the CRS § 42-4-1301(e) (searchable here):
“The fact that any person charged with a violation of this subsection (1) is or has been entitled to use one or more drugs under the laws of this state, including, but not limited to, the medical use of marijuana pursuant to section 18-18-406.3, C.R.S., shall not constitute a defense against any charge of violating this subsection (1).” (emphasis added).
In other words, if your prescription drugs affect your ability to drive safely, get a ride.
In cases of DUI involving marijuana, the law requires the state to show that the person had a THC concentration of 5 nanograms per milliliter of blood. This concentration level has been widely criticized as arbitrary for a number of reasons, and there have been successful defenses in Colorado in which people were acquitted of DUI despite being well above this amount. However, in such cases, the defendant must be able to demonstrate that they were not in fact impaired. If you actually drive unsafely while you have this level of THC in your system, it will be difficult to make this defense.
DUI charges become even more serious when a fatal accident is involved. According to CRS § 18-3-106, “If a person operates or drives a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or one or more drugs, or a combination of both alcohol and one or more drugs, and such conduct is the proximate cause of the death of another, such person commits vehicular homicide.”
Vehicular homicide is a felony, and carries substantial jail time, depending on the circumstances. However, vehicular homicide resulting from driving under the influence is punished somewhat more harshly than vehicular homicide arising from mere reckless driving.
The main issue in this case, since speed is alleged to be involved as well, is likely to be what category of vehicular homicide this is charged as. The prosecution will likely charge with both. Depending on the drugs and levels involved, a jury will likely have to decide based on the facts whether they believe the driver was under the influence.
Contact a Denver DUI Attorney Today
If you have been arrested for DUI or DUI-D, especially if a fatality is involved, you need the experienced and skilled representation of an attorney who dedicates their practice to these issues. When your liberty is on the line, you need someone who knows how to bring the most up to date legal and scientific knowledge to your defense. At Tiftickjian Law Firm, we do just that. Our attorneys, their staff, and their experts are among the leaders in the field of DUI law. Don’t face the court system alone. Contact us today.