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Adding drugs to DWI crime

Published (3/9/2012)
By Mike Cook
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When a woman behind the wheel was passed out after inhaling an air duster and crashed into another car before careening into a Duluth bakery, she could only be charged with careless driving.

She pleaded guilty to the crime in drug court and got some treatment.

“Through this, I discovered that if we were to actually proceed to trial in this case, we could not have charged her with a DWI because the chemical (she was using) is not a prohibited substance under the DWI statute,” said Ryan Morris, an investigator with the Duluth Police Department.

Speaking to the House Public Safety Policy and Crime Prevention Policy and Finance Committee March 1, Morris also told of pulling over a driver weaving across the road. Because the man was under the influence of synthetic marijuana, he, too, could only be charged with careless driving because the substance does not fall under state DWI statute.

Sponsored by Rep. Kerry Gauthier (DFL-Duluth), HF1719 would allow authorities to charge such drivers with a more serious DWI. The bill would modify DWI laws to include being under the influence of a drug or knowingly under the influence of a substance that affects a person’s ability to drive.

Approved March 1 by the committee, it was sent to the House Judiciary Policy and Finance Committee. Sen. John Harrington (DFL-St. Paul) sponsored companion bill SF2220. It is before the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee.

“The spirit of this (bill) is to keep our roads safe and to keep impaired drivers off the road no matter what they’re impaired by,” Morris said.

Assistant Wright County Attorney Shane Simonds said possibly getting a DWI is more of a deterrent, multiple DWI charges can lead to greater penalties for each subsequent infraction and they involve mandatory chemical assessments.

Rep. Bill Hilty (DFL-Finlayson) expressed concern about an unintended consequence of someone becoming too impaired to drive simply by taking prescribed or over-the-counter medication. “It seems too broad to me,” he said.

“People are advised by their physician, by the pharmacist, by the label not to drive,” Gauthier said.

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