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The Utah Supreme Court has upheld a long-standing law that makes it a misdemeanor for motor vehicle drivers to have any measurable amount of a controlled substance, or the metabolite of a controlled substance, in their bodies regardless of whether the drivers are impaired.
Friday's unanimous ruling, penned by Chief Justice Matthew Durrant, is a case of first impression meaning it is the first time since the statute was enacted in 1994 that the high court has ruled on its constitutionality.
Deputy Utah County Attorney Lance Bastian said several lower courts have previously addressed the legality of the statute, with rulings going both ways.
"We've been waiting for one to go [to the Utah Supreme Court], Bastian said, noting that because the statute is only a class B misdemeanor, most defendants haven't had the incentive to pursue a prolonged appeal.
Defense attorney Dallas Young said Friday that his client, then 20-year-old Wyatt Jeff Outzen, of Sandy, fell asleep at the wheel at about 6:30 a.m. on June 23, 2014, and rear-ended another car on Interstate 15 in Utah County.
Utah Highway Patrol troopers who responded to the crash "saw and smelled signs of marijuana" in Outzen's car, and also recognized from his eyes and tongue that he had recently smoked marijuana, the ruling says.
Field sobriety tests, however, showed Outzen was not too impaired to drive, the ruling says.
"It was an interesting case because he had zero indication of impairment, Young said. "It was undisputed he was unimpaired."
Young said that troopers even brought in a "drug recognition expert," who is trained to detect the presence of different controlled substances, to examine Outzen.
Outzen told troopers that "he smokes marijuana ... about every other day," and had done so at about 7 p.m. the night before, the ruling said.
He was taken to the UHP office, where he gave breath, urine and blood samples. His blood tested positive for the primary metabolite of marijuana, the ruling said.
Outzen was charged in Utah County Justice Court with one count of driving with a metabolite of a controlled substance in the body, as well as class C misdemeanor following too close.
He entered a guilty plea to the metabolite count, then appealed to 4th District Court, where he filed a motion to dismiss the case, arguing the statute requires a showing of impairment similar to the driving under the influence law, which acknowledges impairment occurs by degrees.
The district court judge denied the motion and scheduled a trial. Instead, Outzen entered a no contest plea while reserving his right to appeal to the Court of Appeals, which sent the case to the Utah Supreme Court.
Addressing the issue of impairment, the high court said Friday that the metabolite statute plainly states it is a crime to drive with "any" measurable controlled substance or metabolite of a controlled substance in one's body.
Outzen also argued that the statute was unconstitutional, claiming it criminalized the "status" of simply having previously used a controlled substance or having a substance's metabolite in one's body.
But the high court said Outzen's argument ignores the action required by the statute that he was operating a motor vehicle while having a controlled substance's metabolite in his body.
Outzen also claimed the law violates the uniform operation of laws provision of the Utah Constitution because it provides three defenses the controlled substance was involuntarily ingested, it was prescribed, or it was otherwise legally ingested which creates two classifications of individuals.
Outzen had argued that there was no reason to treat someone who had metabolite in their system after using marijuana legally, say like in Colorado, from someone who had the metabolite in their system by other means, Bastian said Friday.
"But we said, it matters how it got there," the prosecutor said. "It matters how the drug got into your system both for public safety and to deter illegal drug use."
The justices wrote that when the statute was proposed to the Legislature in 1994, its sponsor emphasized the need for a prosecutable offense of driving under the influence of illicit drugs and "the impossibility of establishing a level of impairment comparable to the DUI limit."
A violation of the statute is punishable by up to 180 days in jail and a fine of up to $1,000, plus surcharges the same as a first-time DUI violation.
Outzen was fined $1,420 and placed on probation for 12 months, which included obtaining a substance abuse evaluation and any recommended counseling. His justice court case was closed in January 2015.