Thanks to Insane DUI Law, Driver Gets 6 Months for Fatal Crash She Did Not Cause

Michigan's "zero tolerance" standard for THC-positive motorists inflicts another injustice.


St Petersburg Times / ZUMAPRESS / Newscom

Kali Su Schram did not cause the crash that killed Ralph Martin, a 64-year-old bicyclist who rode into her path as she was driving on Seaway Drive in Muskegon, Michigan, on the morning of November 26, 2015. She will nevertheless serve six months in jail as a result of the accident, thanks to Michigan's unjust and unscientific definition of drugged driving.

Schram, now 20, had a detectable amount of THC in her blood at the time of the accident. There is no evidence that Schram was impaired by marijuana, let alone that it contributed to the crash, and she was not at fault, since she had the right of way when Martin suddenly appeared in front of her at an intersection. "If you read the police report," Schram's lawyer, James Marek, told the Muskegon Chronicle, "she could not have done anything to avoid this particular accident."

None of that mattered, because in Michigan it is illegal to drive with "any amount" of a Schedule I controlled substance in your body. According to the Michigan Supreme Court, an inactive metabolite of marijuana does not count as a Schedule I drug, but THC does, even at levels too low to impair driving ability.

"Like a person who operates a car without a driver's license," explained Muskegon County Chief Assistant Prosecutor Timothy Maat, "a person who illegally has a controlled substance in their bloodstream is not legally allowed to drive a car. When a death results from an accident when a defendant could not legally drive, it is then left to the judge to decide an appropriate sentence depending on the facts and circumstances of each case." But for the restraint shown by Martin's family, the Chronicle says, Schram could have gone to prison for more than two years, even though she did nothing wrong that contributed to Martin's death.

The Chronicle cites a similar Muskegon County case from last year in which a driver named Donovan Wilson received a six-month sentence because of a crash that killed his pregnant girlfriend, who was sitting beside him as they returned from a shopping trip. "His THC amount was low," the paper notes, "and the couple had been driving on an unfamiliar road." After the accident, Muskegon County Sheriff Dean Roesler said he did not think drugs were a factor.

The arbitrariness of Michigan's law was compounded by People v. Koon, a 2013 case in which the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that the state's medical marijuana law protects patients from prosecution for "internal possession" of cannabis while driving unless they are "under the influence," as demonstrated by evidence of impairment. As Maat, the prosecutor, put it, "Whether a person appears to be under the influence of THC is not an element we are required to prove unless the person has a valid medical marijuana exception." That exception only underlines the injustice inflicted on drivers like Schram and Wilson, who can be convicted of driving under the influence even when they're not, based on the pretext of traffic safety.

While zero tolerance laws like Michigan's are especially objectionable, since there is not even a pretense of an impairment-based standard, similar injustices arise under laws like Washington's, which makes any driver whose blood THC concentration exceeds five nanograms per milliliter automatically guilty of driving under the influence. That standard ensnares many regular users whose THC levels may exceed the legal threshold even when they are not measurably impaired.

The lack of a scientific basis for linking a particular THC level to impaired driving ability does not justify setting the cutoff at zero. Requiring evidence of impairment, as Michigan does for medical marijuana patients, obviously makes the jobs of police and prosecutors harder. But the alternative is routinely treating innocent, harmless people as if they are menaces to public safety.