Tuesday, January 15, 2002
Driving Under Influence of Marijuana Not Illegal in Idaho—Ninth Circuit
From Staff and Wire Service Reports
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday overturned the weapons conviction of a marijuana-smoking driver, ruling that a loophole in Idaho law allows users of some drugs to drive legally as long as they don’t drive erratically and can pass a field sobriety test.
The case likely has few direct ramifications for California, where courts have limited the reach of an initiative legalizing marijuana possession and use for medical purposes. Driving under the influence of marijuana remains illegal under California law.
But in Idaho, where state law prohibits driving under the influence of alcohol and narcotics, marijuana is not listed as a narcotic.
Because of that, the three-judge panel said, Matthew Patzer could not automatically be presumed impaired, like motorists who have been drinking alcohol.
In overturning the 21-year-old’s conviction, the court wrote that he was not driving erratically and passed a field sobriety test.
“Given the distinction drawn by the statute, there is no basis to conclude that impairment may be presumed upon admission of use of a non-narcotic drug,” the appeals court wrote.
New Plymouth Police Officer Tom Patterson pulled Patzer over during the early morning hours of Sept. 26, 1998 for driving with a broken taillight. Looking into the car, he saw two rifles in the backseat but said he was unconcerned about them because “in Idaho everyone has a gun.”
But he did become concerned about Patzer’s bloodshot and glassy eyes. After repeated questioning, Patzer admitted to smoking marijuana at a party. He passed two field sobriety tests before Patterson arrested him for driving impaired.
After the arrest, the officer searched the Chevrolet Blazer and recovered a number of illegal weapons, including four homemade hand grenades, a sawed-off shotgun and a modified rifle with a homemade silencer. Patzer was convicted of being an unlawful user of a controlled substance in possession of a firearm, and on other firearms charges.
Each conviction must fall, the Ninth Circuit panel ruled, since the search that recovered the items was based on an unlawful arrest.
“Patzer’s arrest was unlawful. The evidence obtained after his arrest ... were ‘fruit of the poisonous tree’ and should have been suppressed by the district court,” the three-judge panel wrote.
The decision reverses U.S. District Judge Edward J. Lodge. The opinion was authored by Senior Judge Thomas M. Reavley, a Fifth Circuit jurist sitting by designation.
Reavely was joined by Ninth Circuit Senior Judge Betty B. Fletcher and Judge Richard C. Tallman.
Idaho Senate Judiciary Chairman Denton Darrington said he had assumed marijuana was a narcotic under state law, and that the statute might need to be reviewed. But he questioned whether the decision would hold up on appeal.
“My guess is, in light of the record of the Ninth Circuit with the U.S. Supreme Court ... that the government will take it on up,” Darrington said. “We may have to evaluate our law, but first we’ll see what the government does here.”
Darrington was referring to the circuit’s reputation of being overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Patzer’s attorney, Fredilyn Sison of the office of the Federal Defenders of Eastern Washington and Idaho, applauded the decision.
“Just having smoked marijuana doesn’t give somebody cause to arrest you for that when driving,” Sison said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael J. Fica, in Pocatello, Idaho, said the government was considering asking the circuit to review its decision or requesting the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case.
The case is United States v. Patzer, 00-30360.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company