December 23, 2016 | Supreme Court Reviews

Vermont Supreme Court Holds That Expert Testimony Is Necessary to Connect Drug Consumption to Criminally Negligent Driving

In State v. Cameron, 2016 VT 134 (Dec. 23, 2016), the Supreme Court reversed defendant’s conviction of grossly negligent operation of a motor vehicle resulting in death because admission of defendant’s earlier marijuana consumption—without expert testimony connecting that to the crash—was prejudicial error.

Issue: Defendant driver lost control of his vehicle after speeding through a blind curve, crossed the middle yellow line, spun, and collided with an oncoming three-axle truck.  The passenger was killed.  Two witnesses testified that defendant may have fallen asleep.  Defendant testified that he had consumed marijuana hours before.  The court admitted this testimony into evidence, over defendant’s evidentiary objection (having failed to raise a constitutional objection before trial).  Defendant was convicted of grossly negligent operation of a motor vehicle resulting in death, but appealed.

Holding: The Supreme Court reversed and remanded, holding that the admission of defendant’s testimony as to his earlier marijuana consumption was error.  Relying on an interplay between V.R.E. 104(a) and V.R.E. 702, the Supreme Court held that the relevancy of defendant’s admission depended on the fulfillment of a condition of fact (the connection between his marijuana use and his alleged gross negligence) which, in turn, would have to be fulfilled by an expert witness; drugs other than alcohol produce a variety of symptoms that “cannot be sorted out without specialized training.”