Yesterday on our Facebook page we posted a link to a well-written article in the Sun-Sentinel about the Joanne Luu not guilty verdict. This comes from a fatal accident at 441 and Sandalfoot Blvd. Our Facebook post received a lot of “engagement” from readers, with 15 shares and a total of 68 comments (including on the shared posts). Most of the comments were angry.
This was a horrible accident. The families and friends of the victims are understandably upset, and like anyone else who reads about this, we are deeply sympathetic to their suffering. But I’ve been a trial lawyer for 20 years now and have handled many DUI cases. In my continuing quest for unpopularity, I have to say what our readers apparently don’t want to hear: The jury got it right.
Over a year ago we explained the Angela Stracar decision, a similar case. Both Stracar and Luu were accused of causing an accident that killed people, of being impaired by drugs, and of driving recklessly. Stracar was convicted at trial after an accident in front of Boca Isles (on Cain Blvd.). Her conviction was reversed on appeal and the charges were dismissed.
Here’s some key language from the Sun-Sentinel article:
Sheriff’s … toxicologist … Yeatman testified the blood sample showed traces of a chemical produced by the metabolization of cocaine. But there was no actual cocaine detected in Luu’s blood, and Yeatman said on cross-examination that the chemical alone would not have caused her to be impaired behind the wheel.
The DUI homicide charge she faced applies when someone is impaired by drugs. You would have to have such a drug in your system in order for it to impair you. There was no cocaine in Luu’s blood.
This doesn’t mean that Luu is a good person, or that the victims deserved to die. It just means Luu was not driving under the influence of drugs. She is genuinely innocent of the DUI charge.
What was found in her system was a metabolite. When you take a drug (legal or illegal), your body processes (or metabolizes) it. The results of that process are metabolites. The most common metabolite of cocaine is benzoylecgonine. You can read about how cocaine is metabolized in a scientific journal.
Our best guess is that the drug test showed benzoylecgonine. It only showed “traces” of it according to the article. Usually “trace” in a blood test means an amount that is so low as to be almost undetectable. That means if Luu had used cocaine it would have been long before the accident.
The prosecutor argued that Luu’s “behavior is completely abnormal because she’s crashing from cocaine use.” To be polite, that’s a creative theory. The statute requires that someone be impaired by drugs, not by the absence of drugs. You wouldn’t have to take this argument much further to argue that an alcoholic or addict who is clean at the time of an accident is impaired by the cravings from their addiction.
Fair DUI: Stay Safe & Sane in a World Gone MADD
Even if she had actual cocaine in her system it would be tough for prosecutors to prove guilt. As the NHTSA puts it:
The presence of cocaine at a given blood concentration cannot usually be associated with a degree of impairment or a specific effect for a given individual without additional information.
The very notion that cocaine impairs driving is itself dubious:
Single low doses of cocaine may improve mental and motor performance in persons who are fatigued or sleep deprived, however, cocaine does not necessarily enhance the performance of otherwise normal individuals. Cocaine may enhance performance of simple tasks but not complex, divided-attention tasks such as driving. Most laboratory studies have been limited by the low single doses of cocaine administered to subjects. At these low doses, most studies showed performance enhancement in attentional abilities but no effect on cognitive abilities. Significant deleterious effects are expected after higher doses, chronic ingestion, and during the crash or withdrawal phase.
Indeed another NHTSA study (pdf) showed little if any evidence that illegal drugs such as cocaine and marijuana increase the risk of driving:
[A]nalyses incorporating adjustments for age, gender, ethnicity, and alcohol concentration level did not show a significant increase in levels of crash risk associated with the presence of drugs.
That’s in stark contrast to the findings about alcohol:
Findings from this study indicate that crash risk grows exponentially with increasing BrAC. The study shows that at low levels of alcohol (e.g., 0.03 BrAC) the risk of crashing is increased by 20 per- cent, at moderate alcohol levels (0.05 BrAC) risk increases to double that of sober drivers, and at a higher level (0.10 BrAC) the risk increases to five and a half times.
If you believe this government science, just one or two drinks significantly impairs driving and is far more dangerous for a driver than any amount of cocaine or marijuana.
The comments on our Facebook post clearly misunderstand what happened. For example, one commenter wrote: “She had a great attorney. The payoff worked well. I mean he “worked” well. That’s all folks. So sad for the family.”
Ms. Luu was represented by the public defender’s office. There was no payoff. While many people have a negative view of public defenders, we have some very good ones in Palm Beach County. They did a great job in this case, and in the Stracar case as well.
Another commenter wrote:
It is called the criminal justice system because the criminals are the only ones to receive any justice, the victims sure don’t and it is not called the victim justice system.
This comment has both truth and error in it. The commenter is correct that the system is generally not about victims. We already have civil courts for that where victims can sue the people who hurt them. One of the harder parts about this case is that the Luu vehicle may have had very limited insurance, leaving little money to compensate the families of the victims.
In some cases the system does work to get some kind of compensation for victims. There is an entirely different approach to crimes called restorative justice that focuses more on victims, but it’s not widely used and is probably not what the bloodthirsty commenters want.
The commenter is completely wrong if he believes that the system is favorable to people accused of crimes. In my experience the deck is stacked against defendants, including innocent ones. With that said it does seem like the prosecutors in South Florida drop a lot of cases involving real crime.
Another commenter wrote: “Sloppy police work and lousy prosecutors.”
There was no sloppy police work here. The police did what they’re trained to do and they did their jobs well. The only thing the prosecutors did wrong was continue to pursue a case without evidence of guilt.
“The fact that two people died meant nothing to this case??”
No it did mean something. The case was prosecuted at the very serious level of a DUI homicide rather than as a lesser DUI or reckless driving case. Had there been no death there’s a good chance the case would not have been prosecuted at all. When there is public outrage over an incident like this, some prosecutors will go ahead with a prosecution to satisfy the public’s blood lust.
“It’s a sad day when all the evidence is present and a criminal is set free. The judge should be incarcerated.”
I’m at a loss to understand why this commenter blames the judge. A jury found Luu not guilty. If anything the judge should have dismissed the case without letting it get to the jury at all.
One of our regular readers posted this:
This is her picture. I think it’s obvious how she was acquitted and it wasn’t lack of evidence.
Another reader suggested that the male jurors didn’t want to convict her. This is nonsense. If you take a look at the comments in total, you’ll see that the overwhelming majority think she’s guilty. The jury pool consists of people with similar attitudes. But when they get into a courtroom and have the law and the facts explained to them, they take their responsibility seriously and in this case they got it right.
One last thing deserves mention. The victims were not wearing their seatbelts. Some, including the county medical examiner, assert that they would have died even if they had been wearing them. That’s an irresponsible thing to say. Seatbelts save lives. Dr. Bell may be a competent physician, but he’s not a biomechanical engineer and so he’s not qualified to make such a statement.
In response to an additional comment, which assumed that Luu ran a red light, we don’t know that.
“During her closing argument, Arco (the prosecutor) acknowledged it was unclear whether Liborio Ferrarella turned on a green arrow or a red arrow.”
Fault in the accident is irrelevant to a DUI homicide charge. If you’re impaired by a drug or alcohol, you’re on the hook in Florida even if it’s the other driver’s fault.