Police officers in Delray Beach, Florida recently responded to a car accident in which a man driving a pick-up truck collided with a minivan, resulting in the death of all four occupants of the minivan. In investigating the crash, the driver of the pick-up truck submitted to blood testing and was ultimately charged with DUI manslaughter. While DUI-related car crashes are an unfortunately common occurrence, this one is distinctive because the driver did not consume any alcohol or any illicit drugs. Instead, the blood test revealed the driver was under the influence of difluoroethane, a liquefied gas used as a propellant. Upon further investigation, the police uncovered that the driver had huffed Dust-Off, a household cleaner, prior to the crash to get high.The driver’s attorney has set forth the argument that since Florida does not have a defined legal limit of inhalants a driver can consume before he or she is considered impaired, the DUI charge is improper. The driver has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting a jury trial. While the pick-up truck driver’s case is the first case since 2014 in which a driver was charged with DUI manslaughter due to intoxication by inhalants, there were other instances in which drivers caused fatal crashes after inhaling intoxicants, but those drivers were not charged with DUI. The increase in charges due to intoxication by inhalants is evident throughout the country as well, including in Illinois DUI cases.
Unlike Florida, Illinois has a broader DUI statute that allows a person to be charged with DUI for reasons other than impairment due to the consumption of alcohol. Specifically, the Illinois DUI statute states that a person shall not drive if they are under the influence of an “intoxicating compound” to a degree that renders him or her unable to drive safely. These catchall provisions are specifically aimed at preventing people from driving while under the influence of non-traditional intoxicants, such as paint, markers, and aerosol spray. As a result, an Illinois license holder who inhales household intoxicants and then drives can be charged with DUI.
There have been multiple cases prosecuted in Illinois criminal courts in recent years in which drivers were charged with and convicted of DUI due to huffing. Unlike the signs of intoxication due to alcohol, such as odor, bloodshot eyes, and stumbling, the signs of intoxication due to inhalation of intoxicating substances are not always easily observable. In some cases, a person who has inhaled intoxicants may not exhibit any symptoms of intoxication at all. As a result, the prosecution may face an uphill battle in proving an individual who drove after inhaling intoxicants was impaired. Additionally, defense attorneys have questioned the constitutionality of the provision of the Illinois DUI statute regarding “intoxicating compound,” arguing it is vague.