MONTPELIER — The Vermont Senate on Monday voted to approve a new standard for drugged driving that scales back a much broader guideline passed by the House.
The Senate Judiciary Committee had been struggling in recent weeks to find language that would help keep roadways safe from drivers impaired by drugs while protecting the rights of other drivers.
Under the Senate language, which was given preliminary approval by voice vote Monday, a person could be charged with drugged driving if found to be under the influence of a substance that “interferes with safe operation of a vehicle in the slightest degree.”
The standard for drugged driving in current law, say police and prosecutors, is too difficult to prove, making convictions hard to obtain. It states that a person has to be under the influence “to a degree which renders the person incapable of driving safely.”
Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn sought action from lawmakers to loosen that standard. The House version did, aligning it with existing law for being under the influence of alcohol. But for alcohol, being under the influence requires “a person’s full mental or physical abilities (be) diminished or impaired to the slightest degree.”
The state has also set a limit for blood-alcohol concentration of 0.08 percent to help sustain a charge. That level can be tested by a breath sensor or blood test.
Senators argued that no equivalent measurement exists for drugs. A tighter standard is needed for drugs to protect drivers who may be taking prescription drugs that actually help them operate a vehicle more safely, some senators said. The House language, they said, created a zero-tolerance policy that could result in unwarranted charges.
“Over the years, we established certain rules with drunk driving that aren’t available to us in terms of testing for drugged driving,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Sears, D-Bennington, said on the Senate floor Monday.
Sears also noted the recent issue in Colorado with law enforcement officers trying to determine if drivers are under the influence of marijuana. The active drug in marijuana can stay in the system for weeks with no effect on the brain or body.
“That’s becoming a huge problem in Colorado,” he said. “My guess is that in five or 10 years we’ll see some kind of standards.”
Some senators raised concerns about the effectiveness of drug recognition experts, or DREs. They are law enforcement officers specially trained to detect if someone is under the influence of drugs. The state has about 25 such officers.
“It seems more subjective as opposed to being clinical,” said Sen. Anthony Pollina, P/D-Washington.
And Sen. Philip Baruth, the Democratic majority leader from Chittenden County, noted that DREs may detect if you are under the influence of drugs but “cannot tell whether it’s affecting your ability to drive safely.”
“We’re in a strange technology moment where we can’t determine like we can with alcohol,” he said.
The Judiciary Committee is “fairly comfortable” with the recognition experts’ ability to make such determinations, Sears said.
The legislation includes a provision requiring the Department of Public Safety to complete a study by Nov. 1, 2015, and report to the Senate and House judiciary committees on the use of DREs in drugged driving cases. The report must include the number of stops made by law enforcement in the state between July this year and June 30, 2015. It must include the number of crashes during that period where drugged driving is suspected.
Additionally, the study must include the number of times a driver who was stopped or involved in a crash was examined by a DRE, whether the person was charged with drugged driving, and whether it resulted in a conviction.
The House must now either concur with the changes or request a conference committee to iron out differences in the House and Senate versions of the bill.
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