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Drug-Related DUI: How Law Enforcement, Prosecutors Prove Impairment

West Virginia and Maryland both make driving under the influence (DUI) a crime punishable by serious penalties. This includes not only driving under the influence of alcohol, but also drugs. While most people are familiar with the legal limit associated with alcohol DUIs (.08) and how law enforcement and prosecutors secure evidence of alcohol intoxication (breath or blood tests), most people do not fully understand what law enforcement and prosecutors must show in order to arrest and convict a motorist for driving under the influence of drugs.

At Sutton & Janelle, PLLC, our legal team has earned a reputation for our work in criminal defense, and especially in cases involving DUI. Below we discuss a few important concepts involved in cases involving drug-related DUIs.

Arrests by Law Enforcement

When it comes to stopping and arresting motorists under suspicion of driving under the influence, there are two key factors which apply to the rules and procedures of law enforcement. These include:

  • Reasonable suspicion – In order for a law enforcement officer to stop and briefly detain a person to conduct a limited investigation, they must have a reasonable suspicion to believe that person is involved in some type of criminal activity. This often means a reasonable suspicion that a motorist is driving under the influence, as established by observations that they are driving erratically, drifting from one lane to another, or nearly hitting other vehicles or objects. In some cases, reasonable suspicion may not involve an officer who actually sees a motorist driving, such as when they respond to the scene of an auto accident and notice signs of impairment.
  • Probable cause – In order for law enforcement to conduct any further search beyond a temporary stop and limited investigation, or to make an arrest, they must meet a higher standard of having probable cause. This generally means an officer has a sufficient and objectively justifiable belief that a person has committed a crime. Probable cause in cases involving DUI may exist when an officer notices visible signs of impairment (slurred speech, unusual behavior, red eyes) that would warrant further investigation, as well as preliminary results of tests (i.e. chemical tests, PAS tests, field sobriety tests) to conduct an arrest.

Defendants may challenge stops, searches, and arrests on the basis of a lack of probable cause, which means that law enforcement did not have a sufficient reason to pull them over or arrest them. When reasonable suspicion or probable cause is valid, however, law enforcement officers will focus on gathering the evidence that would allow them to lawfully arrest a motorist on suspicion of DUI.

In cases involving DUI of drugs, just as in cases involving alcohol DUIs, officers may ask motorists to perform field sobriety tests as a way to gauge their impairment. However, these tests are not mandatory, nor are they always an accurate indication that someone is under the influence. Still, officers may choose to further investigate motorists by administering drug-related field sobriety tests, or having a drug recognition expert respond to the scene to do so.

These experts and specific tests look for indications of drug intoxication, including signs of impairment by depressants, stimulants, hallucinogens, and more. Officers may also use other evidence to justify a drug DUI arrest, including any statements motorists make about consuming drugs or any drugs found on a suspect or in their vehicle. Motorists may also be asked to take a blood or urine test, which cannot be refused without penalty, to further assess what drugs are in their system and the level at which they are present.

What the Prosecution Needs to Prove

When law enforcement officers have probable cause to arrest a motorist under suspicion of DUI of drugs, it becomes the prosecution’s job to charge and convict them. As mentioned, drivers can challenge any lack of reasonable suspicion or probable cause surrounding their contact with law enforcement and their arrests (unlawful search and seizure). Aside from showing that the rules and procedures for stopping, searching, and arresting a motorist were met, prosecutors will also generally need to provide that a motorist was operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of drugs.

While every case is unique, prosecutors will typically rely upon the evidence gathered at the time of an arrest to prove intoxication by drugs. This can include signs of impairment gathered by law enforcement, performance on field sobriety or drug recognition expert tests, suspect statements, the presence of drugs, and the results of a chemical test. While such tests may prove that a person did have drugs in their system, they do not always indicate impairment at the time of driving, which for certain types of drugs, can provide a basis for defendants to raise challenges, especially involving:

  • Prescription medications – A person can be charged with DUI of prescription medications, but because there are issues related to the level of drugs that constitutes impairment, a lack of standardized testing, and reasonable questions as to whether the presence of a prescription medication in a person’s system truly indicates that they were impaired at the time of an arrest, there may be options for motorists to challenge DUI charges.
  • Marijuana – Cases involving driving under the influence of marijuana have become notorious for lacking a true and objectively verifiable means for testing the impairment of motorists. That’s because THC, the active chemical in marijuana, can remain in the body for long periods of time after initial use, and because a person’s tolerance and size can affect whether or not their faculties are impaired and for how long after consuming cannabis. Essentially, there are many questions that arise when determining whether a person is “too high to drive,” which can provide opportunities for motorists to raise challenges, particularly is a person has a valid medical marijuana license.

Discuss Your DUI Case with a Proven Lawyer

Drug DUI cases are serious matters, and the penalties they pose can create a number of short- and long-term consequences for those who stand accused. However, there may be options for defending against these allegations, especially when it comes to evaluating the conduct of law enforcement during stops and arrests, and when challenging the claims made by prosecutors.

If you or someone you love has been charged with DUI of drugs anywhere in Maryland or West Virginia, our legal team at Sutton & Janelle, PLLC is available to help. Contact us today to request a free and confidential consultation, and learn more about your rights and options.

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