Washington: Driver Gets 6 Months For Crash That Likely Had Nothing To Do With Marijuana
By Steve Elliott
During the campaign leading up to the passage of marijuana legalization Initiative 502 in Washington state in 2012, many activists -- this writer included -- expressed grave concerns about the effect of 502's unscientific, arbitrary per-se cutoff point of 5 nanograms per milliliter as a "bright line" beyond which motorists are considered too high to drive. On Tuesday, a Vancouver, Washington marijuana user got a six-month jail sentence, followed by five years of probation, in a case that illustrates exactly why we were worried.
You see, the new definition of stoned driving established by I-502 has nothing to do with impairment, unlike the old law. Before, law enforcement had to prove actual impairment if they wanted to convict motorists of driving under the influence of marijuana, but now, all they need is a test showing marijuana metabolites above 5 ng/ml in the driver's blood. Impairment doesn't even matter anymore in a "driving under the influence" case; we've passed through the looking glass.
Scotty Rowles was driving his 1995 Ford pickup around 6 p.m. on December 17, 2012, when pedestrian Donald Collins stepped from the median into the street directly in front of him, reports Jacob Sullum at Reason.com. "Investigators said Collins was close to two different lit and controlled intersections, but stepped out in the middle of traffic to try and cross the road," reported KPTV.
It seemed obvious that Collins' death was not Rowles' fault. But a cop smelled marijuana on Rowles, who admitted he'd had "a little bowl" a couple of hours earlier. He was charged with vehicular homicide.
Prosecutors dropped that charge after deciding there wasn't enough evidence to support it. But they changed their minds after a blood test showed Rowles' THC level at 7.2 ng/ml, above Washington's new 5 ng/ml cutoff point for driving under the influence of pot.
Because of that rule -- approved by voters a month before the accident -- Rowles was found guity of DUI, even though he almost certainly wasn't actually impaired. Regular marijuana smokers, especially medical cannabis patients, tend to test above 5 nanograms per milliliter all the time, meaning they can never legally drive, whether or not they are impaired.
Knowing he would automatically be convicted of DUI under the new cutoff point, Rowles pleaded guilty to that charge, rather than risk a trial for vehicular homicide.
News reports misleadingly characterized the accident as "the first marijuana-related traffic fatality in Washington" after legalization, but cannabis almost certainly had nothing to do with it. KPTV reported that Roles "failed sobriety tests," but that doesn't mean he was impaired. These tests are "essentially designed for people to fail," according to Seattle defense attorney Aaron Pelley, who specializes in DUI cases.
One of Rowles' relatives told police "he was not impaired when he got behind the wheel," reports KATU in Portland.
"It's just a tragic accident, and what hurst the most is that I did slam on the brakes," a sobbing Rowles told Collins' family at Tuesday's sentencing. "I couldn't stop in time to miss your loved one."
The judge himself admitted that Rowles may have been fine to drive. "If you had not partaken in the marijuana, pot, and driven, would the outcome have been different?" the judge asked. "It may not have been. It may have been. We'll never know for certain."
The circumstances of the pedestrian's death "would clearly put him at fault," according to police, reported KPTV last year. But under Washington "legalization," the driver is "technically at fault" because he had marijuana in his system; never mind that he wasn't impaired.
In addition to six months in jail, Rowles was also ordered to pay restitution to the victim's family, with the amount to be determined at a later date.