A woman was recently charged in Centre County with Third Degree Murder, Homicide by Vehicle While Driving Under the Influence, and related DUI charges. The woman is accused of huffing from an aerosol can of Dust-Off shortly before being involved in a deadly accident that killed a 25-year-old man. It is alleged that the 22-year-old woman bought the dust cleaner at the Wal-Mart near the Nittany Mall, huffed some of the contents in the parking lot, huffed again while driving, and was involved in the accident on the Benner Pike near Rockview Road a short time later. Much of the information provided to the police regarding the driver's huffing appears to come from a passenger. The accident occurred after the woman's car crossed over the center line of the roadway and struck the victim's vehicle head on. The woman claims that she looked down at the radio and doesn't remember anything else.
Proof Required in Pennsylvania Homicide by Vehicle While DUI Case
One of the most severe charges filed against the woman is Homicide by Vehicle While DUI, 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 3735, a second degree felony that carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 3 years incarceration. In order to prove the charge, the Centre County District Attorney must show that there was a death and the death was caused by drunk driving. Therefore, the first step is that the prosecutor must present evidence that the person was driving under the influence. Here, the woman was charged with two different DUI offenses, one that will require proof that she was under the influence of a drug to a degree that impaired her ability to safely drive the vehicle; and the other charge requires proof that she was under the influence of a solvent or noxious substance while driving.
In most drunk driving cases, the police administer a breath test or require the driver to submit to a blood test, and the police then have scientific evidence that drugs or alcohol are in the person's system. In DUI cases involving alcohol and drugs like marijuana and cocaine, evidence of use of the substance remains in a person's system for hours or even days after the alcohol or drug was ingested. With regard to huffing, I believe that evidence of the drug's use leaves the body relatively quickly, so the police may not have scientific evidence from a blood test to confirm that huffing occurred. Instead, the evidence of huffing use will probably be based upon the testimony of the passenger and the fact that cans of the aerosol spray were found.
Assuming the prosecution can present sufficient evidence to get a conviction of DUI, they still would need to prove that the drunk driving was the cause of the accident that resulted in death to get a conviction on Homicide by Vehicle While DUI charge. The prosecution will probably present evidence regarding the lack of explanations for the driver's vehicle crossing into the oncoming lane of travel. For example, testimony about the contours of the road, weather conditions, lighting, and other factors that could normally cause an accident. The prosecution would probably argue that if the accident cannot be explained for other reasons, then the only thing left is that it was caused because of the woman's intoxication from huffing. The woman appears to already be claiming that the accident was caused by her looking down at the radio and not because she was under the influence of drugs. It will ultimately be up to a Centre County jury to decide whether not the prosecution has presented sufficient circumstantial evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the accident was caused by a drug-DUI. For more information about Pennsylvania driving under the influence charges, check out the great DUI Q&A section from this experienced State College drug-DUI lawyer.