Criminal judges are hearing more cases of people arrested for driving under the influence that involve people who took prescription drugs and then drove.
In Davidson County presiding Judge Mark Fishburn hears a lot of DUI cases. He was instrumental in reducing a backlog in DUI cases for the county.
He devotes his entire docket on Fridays to DUI cases.
“When we first started this court, I would say we would have one in 50 drug-based DUIs,” he said. “Now, I think it is closer to one in 15.”
Tennessee is one of the nations leading states when it comes to the amount of prescription pills prescribed.
Law enforcement officials see the result of the trend in more people operating vehicles under the influence of prescription drugs.
Sometimes the drugs are legally prescribed, other times they are not.
Prescription drugs present a unique challenge for the judicial system because there is not a state set legal limit. For alcohol the legal limit is .08.
“With medications, I don't know where you put the limit,” Judge Fishburn said.
Assistant District Attorney General Kyle Anderson leads the vehicular crimes team in Davidson County's District Attorney General's office.
His team handled more than 500 DUI cases in 2012.
“Prescription drugs are very difficult from a prosecution stand point,” he said. “Many of them impair you just like everything else, but you might not take them to get impaired.”
One such pending case is the vehicular homicide case against Mulki Oday.
Oday is charged in connection with a fatal wreck in October 2011.
According to court records, Oday was not legally drunk when the wreck occurred. Her blood alcohol content registered .04, which is below the legal limit.
Oday, however had a prescribed drug in her system.
Judge Fishburn and Anderson could not comment on the case because it is pending.
But, they said cases similar to Oday's are becoming more common and they are challenging.
“It brings a whole new element different than I just had too many beers to this type of prosecution,” Anderson said.
Judge Fishburn said the cases also require more time to process.
“Whenever you have a DUI trial, instead of having a couple of police officers testifying you will have to bring in the TBI crime lab expert and possibly a doctor,” Judge Fishburn said. “Then you are going to have to have an expert come in at every trial and testify about the effects of that medicine.”
Instead of a trial taking a few days, the judge said the trials could stretch into more than a week.
He also said it will create a backlog for the TBI crime lab. The lab tests blood samples for Tennessee law enforcement agencies.
Blood tests are required to determine what type of drugs and the amount of drugs in a person's system when they are arrested.
“It will be longer for the case from beginning to end because you have to start drug testing everybody and the TBI crime lab is going to take longer to get the results back,” Judge Fishburn said. “The case is going to be sitting in limbo until those results are back.”
Currently, the TBI crime lab has a backlog generated by changes in Tennessee's implied consent laws.
In January, Tennessee enacted no refusal laws that allow law enforcement to obtain a blood sample from a suspected drunk driver without a warrant if the person has a previous DUI conviction or has a child under the age of 16 years old in the vehicle.
The change increased blood sample submissions to the TBI Crime Lab by 50%.
However, the agency was not provided with additional funding to hire lab technicians.
The turn around time on a blood alcohol content test went from two weeks to up to eight weeks.
The turn around time for a drug screening went from eight weeks to up to 30 weeks.
The TBI said it is planning to hire more technicians, though it may be months before they are fully trained and working in the crime lab.