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The Law Blogger is a law-related blog that informs and discusses current matters of legal interest to readers of The Oakland Press and to consumers of legal services in the community. We hope readers will  find it entertaining but also informative. The Law Blogger does not, however, impart legal advice, as only attorneys are licensed to provide legal counsel.
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Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Troy District Judge Invalidates Driving While High Law

52-4 District Judge
Kirsten Hartig
By: Timothy P. Flynn

This ruling is going to get some attention in high places.  Troy District Judge Kirsten Nielsen Hartig has ruled that Michigan's motor vehicle code provision criminalizing the operation of a motor vehicle with the presence of a controlled substance [marijuana] violates the equal protection clause of the Michigan and United States Constitutions.

The case, People v Sulaka, arose in 2010 when the accused was allegedly speeding and, when pulled-over, could not produce a drivers license.  In the process of making an arrest for this seemingly innocuous violation, the Troy Police officer detected the odor of marijuana coming from the car and took Sulaka to the hospital for a blood draw which yielded a trace amount of THC.

Our friend, Superlawyer Neil Rockind, argued that the controlled substance provision of the motor vehicle code improperly created a strict liability crime, improperly shifted the burden of proof from the prosecutor to the accused, and unconstitutionally created two classes of people treated differently under the law.

Judge Hartig was persuaded to invalidate the motor vehicle code on equal protection grounds.  Here's how the idea works: there are two classes of people subjected to the controlled substance provision of our motor vehicle code.  One group of drivers have medical marijuana cards and are permitted to have THC in their blood stream while driving, so long as the level does not impair their ability to drive [so says the Michigan Supreme Court in a recent case dealing with the medical marijuana act].  The other group of drivers has no such pot card and are strictly liable for operating a vehicle with any amount of THC in their blood.

In her ruling, Judge Hartig relied on a case from the Georgia Supreme Court that held that the effects of legally used marijuana [i.e. medical marijuana here in Michigan] are indistinguishable from the effects of illegal marijuana consumption: the driver is still buzzed under either set of circumstances.  Therefore, no rational public safety interest is served by creating these distinct classes of drivers thus, the equal protection clause of our Constitution is offended.

The case has already made one trip to the Oakland County Circuit Court for the prosecutor's appeal of Judge Hartig's initial dismissal of the case.  Oakland Circuit Judge Colleen O'Brien relied on the now-reversed Court of Appeals decision in the People v Koon case, which ruled that even drivers with medical marijuana cards violated the motor vehicle code when driving with THC in their bloodstream.  [The Law Blogger's take on the Koon case is here.]

Of course, the Oakland County Prosecutor has again appealed Judge Hartig's second dismissal so the case seems destined to grind further through the appellate process.  Regardless of how Judge O'Brien rules in the [second] appeal of right, both sides are heavily invested in this case and can be expected to apply for further discretionary appeal to the Michigan Court of Appeals.

We shall see whether the Court of Appeals will grant leave in light of our High Court's ruling in the Koon case.  At some point, our legislature needs to address the disconnect between the motor vehicle code and the medical marijuana act.

Unlike alcohol, which utilizes a blood-alcohol threshold for driving, there is no similar scale for drivers who recently smoked marijuana.  As long as there are lawyers like Rockind out there to skillfully protect the rights of the accused, this will continue to be a problem for the courts.  Perhaps its time for the legislature to act on this issue instead of leaving it up to local law enforcement, prosecutors and municipal judges.

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