People v. Way: A defendant charged with aggravated DUI may raise the affirmative defense of sole proximate cause
In People v. Way, 2017 IL 120023, the Illinois Supreme Court addressed the admissibility of certain evidence relating to the charge of aggravated driving under the influence (DUI). On January 28, 2012, Defendant Ida Way was driving under the influence when she collided with another vehicle, causing serious physical injury to two people. Id. at ¶ 3. Defendant consented to a urine test, which indicated the use of cannabis. Id. She was charged with three counts of aggravated DUI (625 ILCS 5/11-501(a)(6), (d)(1)(C)). Id. at ¶ 4. Following a bench trial, Defendant was convicted in the Circuit Court of St. Clair County of aggravated DUI. Id. at ¶ 11. Finding that the Vehicle Code indicated a legislative intent to require strict liability as to the accident, the Court refused to allow Defendant to present evidence that a medical condition (low blood pressure), rather than drug impairment, caused Defendant to lose consciousness and collide with another vehicle. Id. at ¶ 10.
Defendant appealed and the Appellate Court reversed and remanded, finding that Defendant should have been allowed to present such evidence at trial, and it was for the trier of fact to determine whether a medical condition was the sole and proximate cause of the collision. Id. at ¶ 15. The State was granted leave to appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court, who reversed the judgment of the Appellate Court. Id. at ¶ 38. Specifically, the Illinois Supreme Court found that, although Defendant should have been allowed to present evidence that an unforeseen medical condition rather than drug impairment was the sole cause of the collision, Defendant failed to make an adequate offer of proof to support this affirmative defense because Defendant was unable to establish that her sudden low blood pressure was the sole proximate cause of the collision. Id. Specifically, Defendant explained that she would have attempted to call her physician, Dr. Helen McDermott, who would have testified that “it was possible” that Defendant’s loss of consciousness was caused by her low blood pressure, not that the low blood pressure was the cause of her loss of consciousness. Id. at ¶ 35. The Illinois Supreme Court found that this was insufficient to show sole proximate cause. Id. at ¶ 36.
Notably, and as the Illinois Supreme Court emphasized, an aggravated DUI, based on a violation of Section 11-501(a)(6), requires only a causal link between the physical act of driving and another person’s death, serious bodily injury, permanent disability or disfigurement. The State is not required to prove that the defendant was impaired, that the illegal substance in his or her system affected the ability to drive, or that the illegal substance was a proximate cause of the victim’s injury or death. Nonetheless, the Illinois Supreme Court concluded that nothing in the statutory framework precludes a defendant charged with an aggravated DUI, predicated on Section 11-501(a)(6), to present an affirmative defense that a collision resulting in serious bodily injury or death was caused solely by a sudden unforeseeable medical condition.
In a special concurrence written by Justice Garman, and joined by Chief Justice Karmeier, Justice Garman indicated that she would hold, however, that “a defendant charged with aggravated DUI predicated on section 11-501(a)(6) is barred from presenting an affirmative defense that a collision resulting in a serious bodily injury or death was caused solely by a sudden unforeseeable medical condition that rendered the defendant driver incapable of controlling the vehicle.” Id. at ¶ 49. She reasoned that People v. Martin, 2011 IL 109102 held that the State is not required to prove impairment in aggravated DUI cases predicated on per se misdemeanor violations, and the legislature intended a violation of 11-501(a)(6) to be a strict liability offense. Id. at ¶ 45. Thus, allowing a defendant to show that a medical condition was the sole cause of her loss of consciousness (rather than the presence of drugs in her system) would implicitly put impairment at issue. Id. at ¶ 47. Because impairment must be strictly presumed once prohibited drugs are found in a defendant’s system, a defendant charged with aggravated DUI predicated on section 11-501(a)(6) should be barred from presenting such an affirmative defense. Id. at ¶ 48-49.
The legislature intended for impairment to be strictly presumed once prohibited drugs are found in a defendant’s system. As Justice Garman aptly noted, allowing a defendant to raise a sole proximate cause affirmative defense is a roundabout way of putting impairment at issue. Thus, the net effect of the Illinois Supreme Court’s ruling appears to be inconsistent with the purpose of the statute. Yet, instead of addressing this greater issue, the Illinois Supreme Court focused on a deficient offer of proof. Additionally, a question must be asked as to whether holding a defendant strictly liable is consistent with modern science regarding the manner in which cannabis is metabolized, as well as the reality that cannabis consumption moves toward legalization.