Stoned Driver

Court: Police can tell when a driver’s stoned
Friday, July 21, 2006 BY ROBERT SCHWANEBERG Star-Ledger Staff

Since 1924, New Jersey courts have followed this rule: anyone can spot
a drunk, but it takes special training to recognize when someone is

Yesterday the state Supreme Court unanimously reaffirmed that rule,
but offered this twist: Your typical police officer knows marijuana
intoxication when he sees it.

“Expert testimony only requires that a witness be qualified ‘by
knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education,'” Justice Roberto
Rivera-Soto wrote. He said the curriculum for police training covers
illegal drugs, their street names and their “symptoms of use.”

Prosecutors routinely point to that training to show that a police
officer is qualified “to testify as expert witnesses on the subject of
marijuana intoxication,” the justice wrote.

But Rivera-Soto also said nothing in the law on driving while
intoxicated requires such expert testimony. The high court reinstated a
Camden County man’s conviction for driving under the influence of
marijuana, which an appeals court had thrown out because the state did
not present an expert witness.

Two state troopers who stopped Justin Bealor’s car in Sea Isle City
did testify that they observed him driving erratically and that his
speech was slurred and his eyes “bloodshot and glassy,” the ruling said.
A drug test found metabolites of marijuana in Bealor’s urine. Taken
together, the high court ruled, that was enough evidence to convict
Bealor of driving while drugged.

Bealor’s lawyer, Brian S. O’Malley of Haddon Heights, said he had
expected to win. He said Bealor, now 25, was a college student at the
time of his arrest in July 2002.

“The family will be disappointed,” O’Malley said. “It’s been a
roller-coaster ride: conviction, reversal, conviction.”

Deputy Attorney General Steven Yomtov, who argued the case for the
state, was “pleased with the outcome.”

Yomtov said the appeals court ruling had created a problem for
prosecutors because it required them to prove through expert testimony
that a driver had not merely smoked marijuana, but was driving under its
influence. He said drug testing, unlike alcohol testing, cannot tell if
someone has enough marijuana in his bloodstream to impair his

On appeal to the Supreme Court, Yomtov argued the symptoms of
marijuana intoxication are so well known that ordinary citizens would
recognize them. In essence, he argued everyone is an expert at spotting
someone who is stoned. The justices rejected that argument but agreed the
appeals court had made the case unduly complicated.

“The issue is simple: Was the defendant ‘under the influence’ of a
narcotic, hallucinogen or habit-producing drug while he operated a motor
vehicle,” Rivera-Soto wrote. He concluded the state proved Bealor drove
under the influence of marijuana.

But he added that for future cases, the “preferred method” is for the
prosecutor to establish the arresting officer’s credentials as an expert
in recognizing marijuana intoxication.

“We ended up getting, I think, the same result,” Yomtov said.


DUI Attorneys |