Wednesday, May 6, 2009
C.A.: Symptoms, Failure to Stop Did Not Support Conviction
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
Evidence that a driver used methamphetamine and failed to stop at the limit line of an intersection did not support his conviction for driving under the influence, the Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
Reversing Germemias Torres’ conviction and 120-day sentence, Div. One held that evidence that Torres exhibited symptoms consistent with recent drug use and tested positive for methamphetamine after his arrest did not establish his ability to drive safely.
According to the prosecution, Torres was seen driving up to a house under surveillance by San Diego Police Narcotics detectives, who saw him enter the house for about five minutes and then drive away.
Shortly thereafter, an officer observed Torres fail to stop the truck he was driving at the limit line of an intersection and detained him.
Torres did not lock the brakes or come to a screeching halt, nor did he come close to causing an accident, but he did not bring his vehicle to a complete stop until after half the truck had passed the limit line, the prosecution said.
During the traffic stop, the officer testified that Torres was jittery, nervous, and agitated. The officer said that Torres’ face twitched, that his muscles were rigid, and that Torres was stuttering and sweating profusely. The officer also said Torres appeared unkempt and sleepy, although his eyes were wide open, and had bad breath and a chemical odor about him.
The officer arrested Torres for driving under the influence, but did not perform a drug recognition evaluation.
Torres was questioned about his drug use after being transported to the police station, and he admitted having used methamphetamine once a week. However, he initially claimed he had last used the drug two weeks earlier, before amending the claim to admit he had last used the drug two days previously.
Approximately one hour and 40 minutes after the traffic stop’s initiation, Torres was subjected to a physical examination which indicated his pulse was elevated. The examination also showed that Torres’ pupils were more dilated than normal, and he demonstrated abnormal reactions to light.
During the examination, Torres also provided a urine sample which, when tested, indicated a high level of methamphetamine intoxication. He did not undergo any field sobriety tests of other tests to measure his balance, coordination, concentration, or divided attention.
At trial before San Diego Superior Court Judge Roger W. Krauel, a toxicologist testifying for the prosecution admitted that urine testing does not show how much methamphetamine is circulating through the person’s body and brain. However, she said most of the stimulant-like symptoms of methamphetamine, such as those manifested by Torres, are observed during the first 12 hours of use.
The toxicologist also testified that dilated pupils from methamphetamine use might cause momentary blindness, and that she would generally expect a person under the influence of methamphetamine to be a less safe driver.
Torres testified and admitted he had smoked methamphetamine the morning of his arrest, but denied he was feeling the effects of the drugs by the time he was detained.
The jury convicted him of misdemeanor driving while under the influence of a drug in violation of Vehicle Code Sec. 23152(a).
On appeal, Presiding Justice Judith McConnell explained that a violation of the statute requires a showing that ingestion of a drug impaired the driver’s nervous system, brain or muscles to an appreciable degree, such that it impacted the ability to operate a vehicle like an ordinarily prudent and cautious person in full possession of his or her faculties.
“It is not enough that the drug could impair an individual’s driving ability or that the person is under the influence to some detectible degree,” she wrote. “Rather, the drug must actually impair the individual’s driving ability.”
McConnell noted that failing to stop at the limit line is a common traffic violation and—absent any other evidence of erratic driving—concluded it was not sufficient to establish a person is under the influence.
She also rejected the prosecution’s claim of impairment based on the risk of temporary blindness due to pupil dilation absent evidence Torres actually experienced such an effect.
McConnell further declined to infer that Torres’ muscle rigidity actually impaired his driving ability without any expert evidence correlating muscle rigidity to impaired driving, even though she reasoned the jury could have inferred that it had the potential to do so.
Justices James A. McIntyre and Cynthia Aaron joined McConnell in her decision.
The case is People v. Torres, 09 S.O.S. 2551.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company