Drugged and Driving: Why prosecution is so challenging

SOUTH BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) WCAX News reported how two overdose cases behind the wheel highlighted the problem of drugged driving in the state. Now, a look at what makes cases like those challenging for authorities.

When a driver overdosed behind the wheel at a South Burlington intersection last month and then another driver overdosed on the other side of town just six weeks later, we wanted to know how police handle cases like this where the drivers could have caused a tragedy. And we found out that they're challenging for a few reasons.

"It's basically no limits. Could be anywhere," South Burlington Police Chief Trevor Whipple said.

Whipple says overdoses are not uncommon in public bathrooms, parking lots or private homes-- or on the roads after two incidents this fall where drivers overdosed behind the wheel.

"When we get sent to a call of someone down on the ground, someone unconscious, I think it's the first thing that comes to mind. Do we have another overdose?" the chief said.

He says he's also concerned for his officers' safety as they respond. Overdose reversal drugs are used for unconscious drivers but are also on hand in case the responding officers accidentally come into contact with a deadly drug.

Reporter Cat Viglienzoni: Was this a concern of the department in the same level five years ago?
Chief Trevor Whipple: Absolutely not, no.

And once a police department hands their evidence of drugged driving to prosecutors, it's sometimes not enough to make a charge stick.

"DUI drug cases are difficult for us to prosecute generally," Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George said.

George says her office has already charged 62 suspected drugged drivers this year. But she says they face challenges when those cases go to trial. Drunk driving cases have tests to determine whether the person is under or over the legal limit for alcohol. She says roadside drug tests don't exist yet but juries often expect that kind of evidence.

"We've had juries find people not guilty of DUI drugs in this state and have told the prosecutors after that they don't understand why there's no test," George said.

Instead, her department relies on Drug Recognition Experts or DREs, specially trained officers who know how to spot signs that a driver is impaired by something other than alcohol. But DRE training is time-consuming and costly, not something a department with a tight budget or short staff can always accommodate. But George says not having one can weaken their case.

"Some of the judges in our state right now aren't even accepting our charge of a DUI-Drugs unless a DRE made that determination," George said.

Whipple calls cases where people shoot up while driving rare but disheartening.

"We have peaks and valleys where I think we're making progress, where people are getting help and we're not seeing the rates of overdose," Whipple said. "Now, in this last 30-day period, I've become a little less optimistic, when someone's addiction is so significant and so severe that they're actually taking the risk to use the drug while driving."

I asked the Chittenden County state's attorney if DUI cases went to a diversion program instead of being charged. She told me they always press charges.