When a car crash is caused by an intoxicated driver, victims and their families expect the courts to hand down severe punishment to the responsible party. However, a recent case heard by a Wisconsin appeals court demonstrates that existing drunk driving laws are not always sufficient to cover every case of operating while intoxicated (OWI). When the criminal courts fall short, car accident victims and their families can turn to the civil courts to seek justice.
In OWI cases, criminal courts are limited to application of the existing body of legislation. As a result, when a driver has abused a substance to achieve an effect similar to that of alcohol or drugs, the courts are limited in how they can punish the driver. Even when crashes result in injury or death, OWI conviction is not always possible.
This case involved a woman who had inhaled Difluoroethane (DFE) in order to get high, a practice known as ‘huffing.’ She then drove and subsequently crashed her car. When police arrived, she appeared disoriented. She was taken to a local hospital, where a breath test did not show the presence of alcohol. However, two of the woman’s friends and an emergency room doctor told the responding officer that the woman had been ‘huffing.’ As a result, she was cited for OWI – third offense.
A blood test revealed the presence of DFE in her system. However, when the case went to court, the driver’s attorney argued that because DFE is not classified in Wisconsin as a controlled substance or drug, the driver could not be charged with OWI. Her case was dismissed. In the recent appeals case, the state argued that DFE should be considered an intoxicant because of its effects on the human body. However, the higher court upheld the dismissal of the charges.
The results of this case demonstrate the limits of the existing legislation in Wisconsin, which have not kept pace with drug culture. As a result, when an impaired driver under such circumstances causes a car accident that injures or kills others, the charges that they face will not include OWI. For the victims and their families, full justice may not be available in the criminal courts. However, they have the right to pursue allegedly negligent parties in civil suits to recover damages associated with medical bills, lost wages and in some cases, funeral expenses.
Source: The Northwestern, “Appeals court: ‘Huffing’ not covered under drunk, drugged driving laws,” Kevin Murphy, Aug. 1, 2012