MONTPELIER — The Vermont Senate voted Tuesday to scale back its bill on drugged driving just one day after giving initial approval to a stronger measure.
The legislation was given final approval on a 24-0 vote, but not before a few words that concerned some senators were stripped. The Senate Judiciary Committee had been working for weeks to craft precise language that would provide police and prosecutors with a law that would allow for easier convictions while protecting the rights of other drivers.
The committee created a new standard for drugged driving. Under the that language, a driver would be considered drugged if the person was under the influence of a substance that “interferes with safe operation of a vehicle in the slightest degree.”
That language was changed Tuesday after an amendment by Sen. John Rodgers, D-Essex-Orleans, was approved. The new language would consider a driver “under the influence of a drug” if the drug “interferes with a person’s safe operation of a vehicle.”
“Several of us had concerns with the previous draft, mainly with the words ‘in the slightest degree.’ My amendment simply recognizes either you’re operating safely or you’re not,” Rodgers said.
Current law sets the standard as being under the influence of drugs “to a degree which renders the person incapable of driving safely.” Lawmakers have been looking to find new language because police and prosecutors said that was too difficult to prove.
The House version aligned drugged driving with existing law for being under the influence of alcohol. For alcohol, being under the influence requires that “a person’s full mental or physical abilities are diminished or impaired to the slightest degree.” The state has 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.
No such limit exists for drugs, though. The Senate sought a different standard for drugs to protect drivers who may be taking prescription drugs that actually help them operate a vehicle more safely. The House language, some senators said, created a zero-tolerance policy that could result in unwarranted charges.
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 3-1 in favor of Rodgers’ amendment. Chairman Dick Sears, D-Bennington, voted against it in committee and on the Senate floor. He said courts are familiar with the phrase “in the slightest degree,” which Rodgers and others thought was too broad.
Removing the phrase “makes it a little bit weaker. That’s why I opposed it but still support the bill,” Sears said.
The debate will likely continue when House and Senate negotiators look to reconcile the two chambers’ versions of the bill, Sears said.
“I’m sure that prosecutors and lawyers will weigh in on it when it gets to conference (committee),” he said.
Meanwhile, Sears withdrew an amendment he intended to introduce that would create a new crime of trafficking heroin into the state. It called for a 10-year prison sentence or a $100,000 fine.
Sears said he withdrew the amendment at the urging of Rep. Bill Lippert, D-Hinesburg, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Sears sought the same provision in a Senate bill dealing with pretrial risk assessments for offenders, but it was stripped by the House. That bill is headed to a conference committee, where Sears said the new crime “is still in play.”
“I obviously didn’t want to upset negotiations,” Sears said. “I’m going to do everything I can to ensure that it’s in the final version of S.295.”
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