William Strebler was lucky and unlucky. When he drove his car between two parked trucks, nobody was killed or injured. That’s pretty lucky. After he was found guilty of driving under the influence of his prescribed pain medicine, his conviction was affirmed by the court of appeals, and he had to serve two years in prison. That’s not-so-lucky. His case illustrates the importance of trial strategy in Ohio D.U.I./O.V.I. defense and also demonstrates the difficulty of enforcing D.U.I./O.V.I. laws when the substance in question is a prescription medication.
The case of State v. Strebler was decided earlier this month by the Court of Appeals for the Ninth District of Ohio. After the accident, police arrived and had Strebler write a statement about what happened. He wrote a statement that was “largely incomprehensible and ended with the word ‘bowflex'”. Field sobriety tests showed “several indicators of impairment”, so the police arrested him and took him to a police station. His breath test showed no alcohol in his breath, so he was given a blood test. That test showed oxycodone and tramadol in his blood. He told the police he was taking both pain relievers pursuant to a prescription. Strebler was charged with O.V.I.
At his bench trial, Strebler testified that he appeared to be under the influence of drugs because he hit his head in the accident and lacked sleep. The prosecution elicited expert testimony from a toxicologist about how the two prescription medications would affect driving ability. The toxicologist testified that it depends on the individual: one person with that level of those drugs in their blood may be completely normal, and another person may be passed out. The Court concluded that Strebler’s explanation the circumstances was not credible and found him guilty of O.V.I.
On appeal, Strebler argued that the evidence was insufficient to convict him of O.V.I. He pointed out that the prosecution did not prove that his impairment was due to the prescription medications, and it could have been due to his lack of sleep, head injury, and anxiety caused by the accident. The court of appeals found the evidence was sufficient for a conviction, reasoning that Strebler was impaired by something, he acknowledged taking the prescription medications, and the toxicologist said the level of drugs would in some instances impair an individual’s ability to drive. Strebler’s conviction was affirmed.
Strebler’s case illustrates the critical role of trial strategy by an Ohio D.U.I./O.V.I. attorney. First, it’s usually better to have the decision of guilt decided by a jury of eight or twelve people that must reach a unanimous verdict rather than a single judge. Second, the defendant testifying in a case like this may turn the trial into a credibility match rather than what it should be: an evaluation of whether the prosecution’s evidence proved guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Third, if there is expert testimony from the prosecution, it is usually better to hire a defense expert than to “plow with another man’s mule”. It would be interesting to see if a jury would find Strebler guilty if he did not testify and/or hired an expert witness. It appears there was no testimony regarding when the medication was taken, how much medication was taken, how long the medication is effective, and what was his tolerance to the medication.
This case also illustrates the difficulty of enforcing the law for operating a vehicle under the influence of prescription medications. On one hand, we don’t want people driving when their driving ability truly is impaired by medications. On the other hand, we don’t want to charge everyone with O.V.I. that drives after taking prescription medication. There is a danger of mistaking association with causation: having an accident after taking medication does not mean the medication caused the accident. The challenge of enforcing Ohio’s O.V.I. law for prescription medication is one that is increasingly being met by having officers trained as “Drug Recognition Experts”…a topic that will certainly be the subject of a future post.