In the fall of 2014, star Pittsburgh Steeler running back Leveon Bell was charged with a misdemeanor marijuana possession and various drug-DUI charges. Bell was charged after marijuana was found in a vehicle that had been driven by Bell. Bell admitted to having contributed money to purchase the marijuana and to having smoked some of the marijuana earlier in the day, but he denied that he was actually high at the time that he was driving. Bell thought that he was able to legally drive in Pennsylvania and avoid drunk driving charges as long as he was not high while driving. Regrettably for Bell, he was wrong about the law, and ignorance of the law is not a defense.
In Pennsylvania, the drug-DUI law under 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 3802(d) does prohibit a person from being high if it "impairs the individual's ability to safely drive, operate or be in actual physical control of the movement of the vehicle." However, the law also prohibits a person from having marijuana metabolites in a person's system while driving or operating a motor vehicle. Metabolites are basically byproducts that remain in the body for a period of time after the ingestion of drugs. In Pennsylvania drug-DUI cases, the police often require a driver to submit to blood testing, the blood is sent to a lab for testing, and if the results evidence that a particular level of drug metabolites are found in the blood, then the person is charged with a driving under the influence. Whether or not the person was actually high while driving does not matter.
DUI First-Time Offenders and ARD Program
Because Bell was a first-time offender of driving under the influence, he was eligible to participate in a pretrial diversionary program called Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition, or ARD. With this program, the applicant enters a not guilty plea to the charge, but the person accepts a punishment from the court that normally includes a period of supervision by the court or probation, community service, completion of DUI classes like the Alcohol Highway Safety School, completion of drug and alcohol counseling, a suspension of driving privileges, and payment of various costs and fees. Upon completion of the program, the person can request that the charges be dismissed and expunged.
Criminal Charges and Collateral Consequences
Bell's Pittsburgh criminal defense attorney Robert DelGreco advised that Bell was probably going to face additional sanctions from the NFL in the form of a suspension. As a defense lawyer in State College, I represent many Penn State students and athletes that are charged with criminal offenses and also face additional sanctions from the school. In some situations, the client is not even charged with a criminal offense, but the student still faces sanctions through the Penn State Office of Student Conduct. The punishments from the university can range from warnings, to probation, through removal from school via suspensions or expulsions.
The school disciplinary process and criminal processes are often based upon the same underlying incident, but the way to handle the two proceedings is often very different. If a student is charged with a criminal offense or contacted by the Office of Student Conduct, it is important to talk to an experienced lawyer first.