Why is Joanne Luu Innocent?

Joanne Luu mugshot (PBSO)
Joanne Luu mugshot (PBSO)

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.
Accident victims Ferrarella and D'Angelo
Accident victims Ferrarella and D’Angelo

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.

Warren Redlich is the author of
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.

5 Drug Arrests on Tuesday

Between them the Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office and Boca PD made 5 felony drug arrests yesterday, with four of the arrestees having West Boca addresses. The first three were all in West Boca and were booked within a fairly short time of each other so the arrests may be related.
Serge Sando (top left, 23) was charged with two felony counts of selling an opiate in a protected area along with one count of possession. He has a history of a marijuana misdemeanor 2009 that was dropped, and a drug felony in January 2014 we covered that was resolved with diversion. He also had a couple of misdemeanor theft cases in Broward in 2010. The West Boca High grad’s reported address is in the Timberwalk townhomes near Loggers’ Run Middle School. Sando was released on $35K bond this morning. The new charges do not show up yet in the court system’s database.
Kristina Lewis (top center, 23), also a West Boca High graduate, has a reported address off Judge Winikoff just west of 441. She is currently charged with selling a synthetic narcotic, 2 counts of possession without a prescription, and resisting an officer. An August cocaine felony charge was dropped by prosecutors. She was released early this morning. Substance abuse is something employers will want to root out of their businesses and so the use of Countrywide Testing drug tests has become more commonplace because of the inherent risks associated with having people under the influence in the workplace. It’s true that drugs destroy a person’s health and relationships, but it’s important not to forget the threat to their livelihood that they themselves pose entering a situation where they may fail drug testing Honolulu required by their employers.
Kenney Desilien (top right, 21) was arrested for possession of MDMA and Alprazolam. His reported address is in Sandalfoot Cove off SW 65th near Boca Dunes. He has a substantial history. This is his 10th felony case in the Palm Beach courts, plus one in Broward. Previous cases include:

  • Grand theft and trespass 2011 – guilty
  • 2010 armed burglary – consolidated
  • 2010 burglary arrested 2011 – dropped
  • 2011 carrying a concealed firearm in Broward
  • 2011 dealing in stolen property w/ residential burglary – consolidated
  • 4 counts of dealing in stolen property with residential burglary, all dropped
  • Grand theft over $20K plus burglary – consolidated and/or dropped
  • Burglary and grand theft, both dropped
  • 2010 armed burglary – found not guilty in a jury trial in 2014
  • 2 incidents in 2012 indecent exposure – dropped;
  • 2013 cocaine felony dropped
  • 2013 assault on law enforcement officer – dropped
  • 2013 indecent exposure – dropped

Mr. Desilien was one of the subjects of a Boca PD press release back in 2011 (see bottom). He remains in custody at this writing.
Meanwhile Boca PD arrested two men several hours apart in cases that are probably unrelated. Zaven Barsoom (bottom left, 31) of the Hidden Lake neighborhood east of I-95 was charged with possession of drug equipment, marijuana and cocaine. His case is not in the court system yet. We see a previous drug felony from 2012 that was dropped, along with 9 previous felonies in Broward. He was released in the evening.
Caleb Toole (bottom right, 20) was charged with possession of hash oil and Adderall. He’s had several traffic cases along with a drug misdemeanor last month that was resolved with a diversion program. Court records indicate his arrest was actually Monday, though he was booked after midnight on Tuesday. He was released last night.
[gview file=”https://westbocanews.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/multiburg.pdf”]

3 Arrests in Sandalfoot SWAT Raid

Readers reported a SWAT raid on a “drug house” in the West Sandalfoot trailers (Watergate Estates) on Friday night, with approximately ten PBSO cars and two armored SWAT trucks involved. Reviewing the PBSO blotter we see three arrests that fit with this incident.
Hassan Jones (left, 42) and Terry Utter (center, 59) were booked shortly after midnight, each with the same reported address on Atlantic Circle, which is near the west end of Sandalfoot Blvd where it meets Tradewind.
Jones faces two drug charges, including felony drug possession with intent to sell. Utter is charged with two felony drug possession counts (cocaine and another drug without a prescription) and one misdemeanor count for possession of drug equipment.
Antonio Francula (right, 25) was arrested within minutes of the other two, also on drug charges as well as resisting an officer without violence. Francula’s reported address is in East Boca, in the city, but the arresting agency is PBSO which does not operate in the city. Considering that and the timing, there’s a substantial chance he was part of this incident. But we can’t be sure at this point.
As far as criminal history goes, this appears to be Jones’ sixth felony arrest. He’s had four other cases in this county dating back to 1998, and traffic felony in Broward from 2012 (along with five prior minor criminal charges there). The 1998 case was a grand theft and he got probation. In 2003 he got 30 days in jail on felony drug charges. In 2011 he did a short county jail stint on a misdemeanor drug charge. In 2012 he got four months for two grand theft felonies.
Utter had a felony drug arrest in 2012 that was dropped by prosecutors. She then had a felony cocaine arrest in 2013 and was sentenced to a day in jail that she had already served.
County records show Francula had a 2008 robbery felony and he completed his probation for that in 2012. Then in 2013 he was arrested for a misdemeanor retail theft and paid a fine (no jail sentence). A few months later he had another misdemeanor theft charge and got 4 days jail time. This one’s a doozy – he was supposed to get 30 days but it was mitigated to 4 days because he showed up on time for his last court date without being arrested. Earlier this month he was arrested for burglarizing a car and that case is still pending.
Jones and Utter were released Saturday evening. Francula remains in custody at this writing.

Drug Arrests in West Sandalfoot

We have two notable drug arrests to report from West Sandalfoot (aka Watergate Estates or the Sandalfoot trailers).
David Crance (left, 46) was arrested Tuesday and charged with three counts of selling opiates near a restricted area (typically near a school). Mr. Crance previously appeared in West Boca News in January and in April, both times on drug charges. He was released on bond Wednesday evening.
Dawn Smith (right, 44) was arrested around the same time. She’s facing four counts of selling cocaine. Like Mr. Crance, her reported address is three doors down on the same street. While we missed covering it in West Boca News, Ms. Smith was arrested in January on drug charges which are still pending. She remains in custody.

Kandiss Sells Coke?

kandisswilliamsKandiss Williams (45) was arrested Friday, accused of selling cocaine on two separate days in February and March. Police say these alleged transactions took place within 1000 feet of a protected zone (schools and day care centers, for example) and that increases the severity of the charge.
Ms. Williams’ reported address is in Sandalfoot Cove north of SW 3rd between 441 and Lyons. She had a felony cocaine sale conviction from a 2011 arrest She got just short of 30 days in county jail along with 3 years probation and her probation may still be active. She also had felony grand theft charges in Broward back in 2003.

To respond to comments claiming we didn’t verify our information, here are images from the Palm Beach court website about her prior felony case:
Felony Conviction
And from Broward:
And here is an image from the present cases:
Cocaine sale

We should also add, as our regular readers know, that we oppose the drug war. Prohibition has been failing for many decades. What Ms. Williams is accused of doing should not be a crime.
And we should have mentioned that the delay between the alleged transactions and the arrest often suggests a problem for the prosecution.