A recent ruling by the Illinois Supreme Court has proven controversial in the months following the decision as prosecutors have begun using it as a new weapon in DUI cases. Charges in DUI cases may be upgraded without evidence of a driver’s impairment at the time of the accident.
In April, the court ruled that drivers in fatal driving accidents could be found guilty of a felony if trace amounts of an illegal drug are found in their bodies.
The new ruling means prosecutors no longer have to prove that drugs contributed to a crash, simply that they were present in a driver’s system. In the original case, a felony conviction was upheld against a pickup truck driver showing traces of methamphetamine after he crashed and killed two people.
Just one month later, prosecutors in DuPage County used the Supreme Court’s ruling to upgrade a misdemeanor charge to felony aggravated DUI involving drugs. That upgrade changed the defendant’s possible sentencing from 12 months of jail time to three to 14 years in prison.
At least four prosecutions in Cook, DuPage and Kane counties have already applied the Supreme Court’s opinion, each involving alleged use of illegal drugs.
The new precedent has safety advocates applauding the decision, while defense lawyers suggest it may misinterpret the intent behind Illinois’ drunken-driving laws.
“What they’re saying is just because you used drugs in the past, even though you could be safe on the road at the present time, we don’t want you on our highways, and that’s questionable,” a Wheaton, Ill., DUI attorney told the Chicago Tribune.
Others concerned claim the decision may put prescription drug users at risk as the law applies to both illicit drugs and controlled substances. Drivers may be unaware of how long a drug can be detected in their system.
Prior to the court’s ruling, it was necessary to show impairment in a fatal drug-related crash, which was often difficult without a set standard such as the .08 blood alcohol limit for drunk driving.
The ruling grew out of a crash on Christmas Day 2004 when Aaron Martin, 24, left a Peoria bar in his pickup and missed a curve, hitting a car head-on and killing a 50-year old woman and her elderly mother. Trace amounts of methamphetamine were found in the driver’s urine, but no alcohol.
Martin was convicted of aggravated DUI involving drugs by a Peoria County jury, and the judge sentenced him to six years in prison. The conviction was overturned in August 2009 by a state appeals court, after prosecutors failed to show a causal relationship between the drugs and the driving accident.
The appellate decision was then overturned by the Illinois Supreme Court when the justices ruled “no causal connection” was needed due to Illinois’ longstanding zero-tolerance stance on drugged driving. The court’s opinion suggests the real crime is bad driving, which is why proof of impairment is not necessary.