Illinois Supreme Court blows it, or why fighting drugged driving laws is so damned important

In a depressing opinion this week, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that someone with absolutely no drugs in their blood and the almost completely undetectable trace (that took three tests to discover) of drugs in the urine, and in which case everyone (including the court) agreed that the defendant was not under the influence of the drugs at the time, nevertheless was properly sentenced to six years for the aggravated offense of of driving under the influence in an accident where people died.

The case is The PEOPLE of the State of Illinois, Appellant, v. Aaron L. MARTIN, Appellee

Here’s the part that really gets to me.

One part of the law states:

Section 11–501 provides:

“(a) A person shall not drive or be in actual physical control of any vehicle within this State while:

(1) the alcohol concentration in the person’s blood or breath is 0.08 or more based on the definition of blood and breath units in Section 11–501.2 [625 ILCS 5/11–501.2];

(2) under the influence of alcohol;

(3) under the influence of any intoxicating compound or combination of intoxicating compounds to a degree that renders the person incapable of driving safely;

(4) under the influence of any other drug or combination of drugs to a degree that renders the person incapable of safely driving;

(5) under the combined influence of alcohol, other drug or drugs, or intoxicating compound or compounds to a degree that renders the person incapable of safely driving; or

(6) there is any amount of a drug, substance, or compound in the person’s breath, blood, or urine resulting from the unlawful use or consumption of cannabis listed in the Cannabis Control Act [720 ILCS 550/1 et seq.], a controlled substance listed in the Illinois Controlled Substances Act [720 ILCS 570/100 et seq.], an intoxicating compound listed in the Use of Intoxicating Compounds Act [720 ILCS 690/0.01 et seq.], or methamphetamine as listed in the Methamphetamine Control and Community Protection Act [720 ILCS 646/1 et seq.].

So item six is the key here. That “any amount” in “breath, blood, or urine” clause is ridiculous. But note that this is just a law saying that people shall not drive under these situations. The penalty is a misdemeanor.

Then later, the law specifies aggravated driving under the influence as follows:

(d) Aggravated driving under the influence of alcohol, other drug or drugs, or intoxicating compound or compounds, or any combination thereof.

(1) Every person convicted of committing a violation of this Section shall be guilty of aggravated driving under the influence of alcohol, other drug or drugs, or intoxicating compound or compounds, or any combination thereof if: …

(F) the person, in committing a violation of subsection (a), was involved in a motor vehicle, snowmobile, all-terrain vehicle, or watercraft accident that resulted in the death of another person, when the violation of subsection (a) was a proximate cause of the death.” 625 ILCS 5/11–501 (West 2008).

The plain reading of this clause clearly means that the felony enhancement only occurs if the infraction in (a) above was a proximate cause.

So what is “proximate cause”? From West’s Encyclopedia of American Law:

An act from which an injury results as a natural, direct, uninterrupted consequence and without which the injury would not have occurred.

Proximate cause is the primary cause of an injury. It is not necessarily the closest cause in time or space nor the first event that sets in motion a sequence of events leading to an injury. Proximate cause produces particular, foreseeable consequences without the intervention of any independent or unforeseeable cause. It is also known as legal cause.

To help determine the proximate cause of an injury in Negligence or other tort cases, courts have devised the “but for” or “sine qua non” rule, which considers whether the injury would not have occurred but for the defendant’s negligent act. A finding that an injury would not have occurred but for a defendant’s act establishes that the particular act or omission is the proximate cause of the harm, but it does not necessarily establish liability since a variety of other factors can come into play in tort actions.

Some jurisdictions apply the “substantial factor” formula to determine proximate cause. This rule considers whether the defendant’s conduct was a substantial factor in producing the harm. If the act was a substantial factor in bringing about the damage, then the defendant will be held liable unless she can raise a sufficient defense to rebut the claims.

Is there any way in that definition that the presence of an almost undetectable amount of drugs in the urine and none in the blood could possibly be interpreted as “proximate cause”? No.

However, the Illinois Supreme Court manages to find a way. After their analysis of the law in the opinion they continue for some time in an extremely convoluted way to argue that it is proximate cause, not because it is “proximate cause” under the definition of “proximate cause,” but because the Illinois State Legislature has placed it in that position, and therefore by the legislature’s definition it must be proximate cause even though it isn’t.

This destruction of the English language by courts and the legislature is particularly offensive to me (and, I assume, other people who love what “the law” and language should be). It’s like the federal government defining by legislation that marijuana has no medical use, regardless of whether it actually has medical use. It doesn’t have medical use because they have defined it as not having medical use.

It’s like defining someone as 3/5 of a person. It’s offensive to law, reason, and the language.

At one point in the Illinois Supreme Court’s decision, they defended their decision to play these definition games with the idea that we have to throw everyone in the same pot (regardless of the level of impairment or whether there was any impairment at all), because otherwise it would make the prosecutor’s job too hard.

Which, of course, brings up another point not directly related to the decision: What asshole of a prosecutor pushes for aggravated penalties based on this evidence?

This is why “per se” drugged driving laws must be fought and repealed. I don’t know why the defendant crashed into the other car. Maybe he fell asleep. These kind of crashes are tragic (although declining due to advanced highway safety measures such as rumble strips, median fences, etc.), and someone responsible for such a crash should be held accountable. But if you have two individuals who committed the same tragic act, and one of them is sentenced to a number of additional years in prison for something that had absolutely no connection to the event, then it is a direct attack on the rule of law and adds to the destruction of our judicial system.

Ironically, the court notes that they’re following an earlier case (People v. Fate) where they stated: “There is no dispute that the statute is intended to keep drug-impaired drivers off of the road.” And yet, by making no distinction between drug-impaired drivers and those who have a miniscule trace in their urine, they do the opposite.

The court has just established that if you’re going to do illicit drugs at all, then there’s absolutely no legal incentive to avoid using drugs right before driving.

There’s a lot we don’t know about drugs and impairment. We can always use more research (particularly research that is actually interested in determining impairment and not justifying a back-door way to criminalize internal possession), and we need to educate lawmakers better on the actual research that does exist.

And we need to get rid of these completely nonsensical per se laws.

Better yet, let’s legalize drugs and make the laws irrelevant.

[Thanks, David]

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