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Cops Can't Decide Whether Drivers Are High, Rules Massachusetts' Highest Court

Due to the physical and mental effects of marijuana varying from person to person, a police officer cannot offer an opinion on whether an individual was "high" in court cases involving a driver accused of operating under the influence of marijuana, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court said in a ruling issued Tuesday.

By Gintautas Dumcius

Due to the physical and mental effects of marijuana varying from person to person, a police officer cannot offer an opinion on whether an individual was "high" in court cases involving a driver accused of operating under the influence of marijuana, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court said in a ruling issued Tuesday.

The court considered a case asking whether field sobriety tests are admissible in court cases when the tests are used on a driver a police officer suspects has been operating under the influence of marijuana, similar to cases involving a driver suspected of driving under the influence of alcohol.

The court ruled that police officers, without being qualified as experts, cannot testify to the results of field sobriety tests as in alcohol cases.

They can testify to "roadside assessments," such as their observations of bloodshot eyes, drowsiness and lack of coordination, and things like erratic driving, the odor of marijuana and the driver's general behavior after exiting the vehicle. But the officer cannot offer an opinion on whether those mean the driver was under the influence of marijuana.

Massachusetts voters broadly legalized marijuana through a November 2016 ballot question, but driving under the influence remains illegal.

"Because the effects of marijuana may vary greatly from one individual to another, and those effects are as yet not commonly known, neither a police officer nor a lay witness who has not been qualified as an expert may offer an opinion as to whether a driver was under the influence of marijuana," the court said.

The court added, "Jurors are permitted to utilize their common sense in assessing trial evidence."

The court heard the case in January 2017.

(c)2017 MassLive.com, Springfield, Mass.

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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