People v. Way, 2017 IL 120023 (April). Episode 349 (Duration 7:44)
Proximate cause defense in aggravated DUI cases remains alive and well after the cannabis reform law.
This was a cannabis related aggravated DUI. To learn more about Illinois DUI law visit this resource page.
Defendant drove over the centerline of a two-lane road in and struck head-on a truck driven by a pregnant lady.
Both the pregnant lady and defendant’s 14-year-old son, who was a passenger in defendant’s vehicle, suffered from great bodily harm.
Defendant consented to blood and urine samples on the day of the accident. The urine test revealed the presence of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) metabolite, which results from cannabis use.
Section 11-501(a)(6) of the Illinois Vehicle Code (Vehicle Code) makes it a misdemeanor offense to drive or be in actual physical control of any vehicle in this state while there is any amount of a drug, substance, or compound in the person’s breath, blood, or urine resulting from the unlawful use or consumption of cannabis. 625 ILCS 5/11-501(a)(6).
Section 11-501(d)(1)(C) of the Vehicle Code elevates the misdemeanor offense to felony aggravated DUI if the person, in committing the violation of subsection (a), was involved in a motor vehicle accident that resulted in great bodily harm or permanent disability or disfigurement to another, when the violation was a proximate cause of the injuries. 625 ILCS 5/11-501(d)(1)(C).
Section 11-501 of the Vehicle Code provides, in pertinent part:
“(a) A person shall not drive or be in actual physical control of any vehicle within this State while: * * * (6) there is any amount of a drug, substance, or compound in the person’s breath, blood, or urine resulting from the unlawful use or consumption of cannabis listed in the Cannabis Control Act *** . * * * (d) Aggravated driving under the influence of alcohol, other drug or drugs, or intoxicating compound or compounds, or any combination thereof. (1) Every person convicted of committing a violation of this Section shall be guilty of aggravated driving under the influence of alcohol, other drug or drugs, or intoxicating compound or compounds, or any combination thereof if: * * * (C) the person in committing a violation of subsection (a) was involved in a motor vehicle accident that resulted in great bodily harm or permanent disability or disfigurement to another, when the violation was a proximate cause of the injuries[.]” 625 ILCS 5/11-501 (West 2010).
Note: This provision of the Vehicle Code was recently amended and no longer imposes a zero-tolerance ban on driving with cannabis in the driver’s system. Pub. Act 99-697 (eff. July 29, 2016).
Defendant was not allowed to call her doctor who would have testified that defendant “has low blood pressure and it is possible that the loss of consciousness right before the accident was caused by this condition and not caused by any particular drug.
At issue is whether defendant should have been allowed to present evidence from her physician that a medical condition, rather than drug impairment, led her to lose consciousness and was the sole cause of the resulting collision with Wood’s vehicle.
Doctor Would Have Said
Of course, the doctor could not say that was the cause, simply that it was a possibility.”
Defense counsel also stated that defendant would have testified “that she was not impaired and had not done any illegal drugs that particular day” and would have called three lay witnesses “who saw her shortly before the accident to testify that she was not impaired.”
The Act now prohibits driving with either 5 nanograms or more of delta-9-THC per milliliter of whole blood or 10 nanograms or more of delta-9-THC per milliliter of other bodily substance, as measured within two hours of driving.
Under the DUI statute, proof of impairment was not necessary in two types of DUI cases:
(1) when the alcohol concentration in the person’s blood or breath was above the legal limit; or (2) when there was any amount of cannabis, controlled substances, or methamphetamine in the defendant’s body.
That’s what they meant by saying it was a “strict liability” offense as opposed to violations that required proof of impairment.
Therefore, the State was not required to prove that the defendant was impaired and that the illegal substance in his system, either alone or in combination with other factors, affected his ability to drive and was the proximate cause of the victims’ deaths.
Proximate Cause Defense
Martin made plain that “the central issue at trial will be proximate cause, not impairment.
A defendant who is involved in a fatal motor vehicle accident while violating section 11-501(a)(6) is guilty of only misdemeanor DUI, where his driving was not a proximate cause of the death.”
The Illinois Supreme Court said reiterated that when an aggravated DUI charge is based on a violation of section 11-501(a)(6), as in this case, section 11-501(d)(1)(C) requires a causal link only between the defendant’s physical act of driving and another person’s great bodily harm or permanent disability or disfigurement.
People v. Martin
The facts in this case are virtually identical to People v. Martin, 2011 IL 109102, ¶ 26. As the State correctly advances, because defendant was driving with cannabis in her system—a per se DUI offense requiring no evidence of impairment—an aggravated DUI charge based on defendant’s involvement in an accident resulting in great bodily harm or permanent disability to another requires a causal link only between her physical act of driving and another person’s injuries or death.
Here, as in Martin, although there was no evidence that the drugs in defendant’s system rendered her impaired or caused the accident, her driving in violation of section 11-501(a)(6) was a proximate cause of the victims’ great bodily harm.
Defendant acknowledges that the State had sufficient evidence to show that she was at fault when her car crossed the centerline and collided head-on with the other vehicle.
She asserts, however, that the trial court erred in barring her from presenting evidence to establish that a sudden medical condition (i.e., low blood pressure) resulted in her losing consciousness prior to the collision and was the sole proximate cause of the crash.
To a certain extent she is correct.
Sure enough, the law of proximate cause allows a defendant to raise as an affirmative defense that a collision resulting in serious bodily injury or death was caused solely by a sudden unforeseeable medical condition or act of God that rendered the defendant driver incapable of controlling the vehicle.
Didn’t Meet Her Burden
However, a defendant who raises this affirmative defense in an aggravated DUI prosecution, however, bears the burden of establishing that the alleged unforeseen medical condition constitutes the sole proximate cause of the accident and the resulting injuries.
She didn’t meet that burden here.
This defendant essentially just wanted to prove she was not impaired, which was irrelevant.
Her own doctor could not testify that defendant’s low blood pressure was the cause of her falling asleep or losing consciousness prior to the accident, only that it was a possibility.
Based upon the offer of proof, defendant was unable to show that her theory as to why she lost control of her vehicle was the sole proximate cause of the resulting collision to the exclusion of the presumed impairment.
Consequently, we find defendant failed to adequately support her claim that the trial court improperly barred her affirmative defense from proceeding.
For these reasons, the trial court erred in finding that defendant was barred, as a matter of law, from raising as an affirmative defense that the accident was caused solely and exclusively by a sudden unforeseeable medical condition that rendered defendant incapable of controlling her car.
Defendant, however, failed to make an adequate offer of proof to support this affirmative defense.
Accordingly, the judgment of the appellate court is reversed, and defendant’s conviction and sentence for aggravated DUI are reinstated.
Today, the state has to prove impairment or a minimum level of cannabis. However, this proximate cause defense remains intact.