Ohio Drugged Driving Law: Must Be Nexus Between Drug And Driving Impairment

Old man walking with a caneThe only presumption permitted in an Ohio DUI/OVI trial is the presumption the defendant is not guilty.  In a case alleging drugged driving, the prosecution must prove the defendant ingested a drug, and the prosecution must prove the defendant’s ability to drive was impaired.  Finally, as a recent case illustrates, the prosecution must prove causation:  the impaired driving ability was caused by ingesting the drug.

The recent case is State v. Hammond.  A law enforcement officer stopped Hammond for speeding and observed Hammond’s pupils were constricted.  Based on his training in Advanced Roadside Impaired Driving Enforcement (ARIDE), the officer suspected Hammond may be under the influence.  The officer administered field sobriety tests, and those tests reportedly revealed “clues” of intoxication.  Hammond was 70 years old and walked with a cane.  The officer arrested Hammond for OVI and had Hammond submit a urine sample.  The officer charged Hammond with OVI, and Hammond entered a plea of Not Guilty.

At Hammond’s trial, the prosecution introduced the results of Hammond’s urine test.  The test showed the presence of N-Desmethyldiazepam, Oxazepam, and Temazepam.  The prosecution did not introduce expert testimony to describe the side effects of those drugs, but the officer testified in a conclusory fashion those drugs impaired Hammond’s ability to operate a vehicle.

The defense showed Hammond was taking the medications pursuant to a prescription.  Hammond’s wife testified he takes medications for blood pressure, cholesterol, sleep and pain.  She further testified he had been taking those medications for 15 years, and they did not impair his driving.  She explained he suffered two strokes, he has degenerative disc disease, he has an artificial ankle, and he walks with a cane.

The jury found Hammond guilty of OVI, and Hammond appealed the conviction to the Fourth District Court of Appeals.  In his appeal, Hammond argued the conviction was based on insufficient evidence.  When a claim like this is made, the appellate court views the evidence in a light most favorable to the prosecution and only reverses the conviction if no rational jury could have found the crime was proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

The appellate court reversed the conviction.  The court observed the prosecution must prove a nexus between the drug(s) ingested and the impaired driving ability.  The court commented the prosecution could prove that nexus with either expert testimony regarding the potential side effects of the medication or testimony from a non-expert regarding the side effects of that particular medication on that particular defendant.

The prosecution did not introduce either type of evidence in this case.  The officer was not an expert:  he was not qualified to testify regarding the side effects of N-Desmethyldiazepam, Oxazepam, and Temazepam.  The officer also did not have personal knowledge of how those medications effect Hammond.  Without such testimony, the prosecution failed to prove the requisite nexus between the drug(s) ingested and Hammond’s impaired driving ability.  Therefore, the evidence was insufficient to prove Hammond’s guilt, so the conviction was overturned.

Appellate courts have overturned convictions for this reason in previous cases, so the decision by the court of appeals is not surprising.  What is surprising is the jury ever found Hammond guilty:  there really was not much evidence his driving ability was impaired.  His only traffic violation was speeding, which is not an indication of intoxication.  The evidence of intoxication seems to be his poor performance on field sobriety tests, but he was 70 years old, had two strokes, had degenerative disc disease, had an artificial ankle, and walked with a cane.  His inability to stand on one leg or walk heel-to-toe was evidence he was disabled, not evidence he was under the influence.  This is why we have appellate courts.

*This case is likely no longer good law, as the Ohio Supreme Court reached a different conclusion in State v. Richardson on December 29, 2016.

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