DUI testing is a well-established practice in Pennsylvania, but its accuracy has always been up for debate. Instruments need to be properly calibrated and used correctly. Not to mention, any number of factors can influence the results of a DUI test.

While convictions and resulting DUI penalties have hinged on these test results for years, there is some new law coming from Pennsylvania’s Appellate Courts that could change things drastically.

DUIs and Metabolites

We usually think of DUI tests in terms of someone’s Blood-Alcohol Concentration (BAC), which measures the level of alcohol impairment at the time of a traffic stop. And since alcohol breaks down fairly quickly, this usually provides a reasonable depiction of how intoxicated someone when they are stopped. But alcohol is one of many substances that can cause impairment.

Other drugs like heroin, marijuana, and prescription painkillers are a lot harder to accurately measure. In these situations, forensic testing looks for the byproducts of the ingested drugs, called metabolites. However, since these substances break down differently than alcohol, it’s been argued that they are in people’s system a lot longer and raises doubt about when they were ingested or how they impact a person’s ability to drive.

Before the following (recent) Pennsylvania Superior Court decisions were published, the law took a ‘per se’ or zero-tolerance approach to metabolites in DUI cases, where a person could be convicted if ANY detectible level of a controlled substance is found in their system.

What about Prescription Medications?

In Comm. V. Glenn, 220 PA Super 128 (May 29, 2020), the defendant appealed his prior conviction for driving under the influence of metabolites of a controlled substance, despite having a valid prescription. The facts of the original case were that he was found after driving to his parent’s home and appeared impaired. The police ultimately found he had been wearing a fentanyl patch, which was prescribed after a recent surgery related to having incurable cancer.

The man was ultimately charged with DUI metabolite and related offenses. The matter proceeded to trial where he was convicted of the DUI – metabolite but acquitted of the lesser offenses.

His conviction was based on the Commonwealth’s interpretation of Section 3802-Title 75:

(d) Controlled substances. – An individual may not drive, operate or be in actual physical control of the movement of a vehicle under any of the following circumstances:

  • (1) There is in the individual’s blood any amount of a:
  • (i) Schedule I controlled substance, as defined in the act of April 14, 1972 (P.L. 233, No. 64), known as The Controlled Substance, Drug, Device and Cosmetic Act;
  • (ii) Schedule II or Schedule III controlled substance, as defined in the Controlled Substance, Drug, Device and Cosmetic Act, which has not been medically prescribed for the individual; or
  • (iii) metabolite of a substance under subparagraph (i) or (ii).

In this case, the trial court held that it is per se illegal for an individual to operate a motor vehicle with any amount of metabolite in their blood, even if, as it was here, that metabolite is produced from medically prescribed Fentanyl.

On appeal, the defendant argued that when he was arrested, he had a lawfully-obtained prescription for the Fentanyl patch which caused metabolites to appear in his bloodstream. Therefore, the trial court’s decision was inconsonant with the legislature’s intent not to criminalize driving with prescribed controlled substances in an individual’s bloodstream.

Upon review, the appeal court agreed and found that the legislature did not intend to permit an individual to lawfully operate a motor vehicle while a medically prescribed a “parent” substance, but simultaneously prohibit the same individual from lawfully operating a vehicle while a metabolite of the same substance is in their bloodstream.

As a result, the man’s conviction and sentence were vacated

Does Medical Marijuana Count?

Pennsylvania’s Superior Court says it might. In Comm. V. Jezzi, 208 A.3d 1105, a defendant appealed his convictions in Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas for two counts of possession with intent to deliver marijuana (“PWID”), and one count each of possession of marijuana and possession of drug paraphernalia.

Essentially, the defendant was identified by an informant to be packaging and distributing marijuana from his home. An investigation revealed a large quantity of marijuana residue and loose marijuana in the individual’s trash. This led to a warrant to search his property where the police found a cannabis grow operation.

The individual was subsequently charged and while he filed pre-trial motions that argued against marijuana’s classification as a Schedule I substance after the General Assembly enacted the Medical Marijuana Act (MMA), he was convicted.

On appeal, the individual argued that since the General Assembly found marijuana to have medical value by passing the MMA, it no longer fits the definition of a Schedule I controlled substance, which defines them as having a high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medical use, and a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision. He further contended that this contradiction denied him due process and equal protection under the law.

While the Appeals Could found considerable faults with the appellant’s arguments and ultimately denied his request, it did make a critical note regarding medical marijuana.

Specifically, the court points out that medical marijuana is not defined by the CSA. Rather only marijuana is listed and since the Pennsylvania Medical Marijuana Act allows for limited use, if a medical marijuana patient is in compliance with the MMA, it cannot be considered illegal.

What It All Means for DUI’s

The concepts discussed here can seem unnecessarily dense, but these recent rulings have very important implications for DUIs involving prescription drugs and marijuana cases.

Simply put, the Glenn case lays out that a person is not automatically considered guilty of impaired driving if they have legally prescribed metabolites in their systems. This is worthwhile on its own for any medication, but the second Jezzi case suggests that medical marijuana is included.

There are certainly various scenarios where this can be useful, but most notably if a medical marijuana patient is pulled over, the presence of cannabis-related metabolites can’t be used against them so long as they are in compliance with the MMA

Work with an Experienced DUI Attorney

If you are facing a drug-related DUI in the Philadelphia area, reach out to a professional DUI lawyer right away. By using relevant and up-to-date case law possible, you can greatly improve your situation.

Let us explain if any of these new decisions apply tor case and if you are eligible for a charge reduction or dismissal. Call (215) 839-9529 or contact us online to set up a free, confidential consultation.

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