One of the most devastating tragedies a family can endure is the loss of a loved one to a selfish, preventable act. Every day, lives are changed forever when a loved one is killed at the hands of a drunk or impaired driver. 

As the holidays get closer, the yearly reminder that these occurrences only increase during this time of year is blasted en masse. 

However, local leaders from Suffolk and Nassau counties are starting the holiday season with a more hopeful mission: to close the loopholes in New York’s laws regarding probable cause for arrest when dealing with unknown substances. 

They are lobbying for Senate Bill 3135 and Assembly Bill 174, which would improve existing laws in several ways 

First, drugged driving will not apply to all impairing substances, not just those on a list. As it stands, an obviously impaired driver cannot be arrested unless law enforcement can determine and name the drug impairing the driver at the scene and that that drug is on the New York Public Health Law (PHL) 3306 list. However, the test to identify the drug cannot be administered until after the arrest. New York is now just one of four states that still uses a list that does not include new substances and synthetic drugs. 

Secondly, the definitions of “impaired” and “intoxicated” are added to remove confusion. Unlike alcohol, there is no numerically quantified impairment level when it comes to determining the level of drug intoxication. The danger herein lies in the fact that serious impairment might not be observable or look like “intoxication.” 

Additionally, oral fluid field testing (OFFT) would be added as a roadside screening tool to support probable cause and exoneration. The OFFT screens for recent use of drugs and is currently used in twenty-four states and twenty countries. OFFT results alone do not prove impairment or sobriety. Rather, the results can offer real-time evidence of drug use, which can help law enforcement in their onsite investigations. The legislation would also restore traffic tickets for refusing roadside sobriety and screening tests, a provision that was removed by the courts without legislative authorization. In addition to supporting probable cause, OFFT can also be used to support exoneration if a driver is not impaired. 

The legislation would also equate Drug Recognition Evaluation (DRE) exams to evidential breath and blood tests regarding refusals for roadside testing. The DRE is one of the best tools to determine impairment and exonerate drivers with medical conditions. As it stands, the law encourages testing by imposing license sanctions for refusing to take an evidential test. The legislation would apply the same license revocation standards for refusing a DRE exam. 

The bill would expand court orders for evidential blood draws under certain circumstances. Currently, the law only allows courts to order blood draws in cases of “serious physical injury or death” once a judge establishes probable cause. The bill would also permit courts to order blood draws if a person refuses forms of testing and for drivers with prior impaired driving charges. 

Finally, the bill would suspend the licenses of drugged drivers in the same manner as a Driving While Intoxicated (DWI) charge is levied for drunk drivers. Currently, a drugged driver can be arraigned and leave court with a valid license until the case is concluded, while drivers who are found to have been above the legal limit with alcohol see their licenses suspended. The bill would suspend drugged drivers’ licenses when a test result is obtained.  

Local leaders, including Suffolk County District Attorney Ray Tierny (R), Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon (D), Nassau County District Attorney Anne Donnelly (R), community organizers, and even the families of victims to drugged driving gathered at the New York State Police Department at Republic Airport in Farmingdale Monday morning. 

“We’re imploring everyone to think before they get behind the wheel,” said Suffolk County District Attorney Tierney. “And if you don’t, we will be here enforcing the law. This Wednesday is Thanksgiving Eve, and we all know it’s the night that college kids come home and meet up with each other. It’s known as the biggest bar night of the year, so let’s start to talk about prevention now. Let’s talk to our kids and families about staying safe this holiday season.” 

“This is probably the worst part of my job: meeting and talking to families whose loved ones have been ripped from their lives because of the selfish, dangerous drunk and drugged drivers,” said Nassau County District Attorney Donnelly. Donnelly recounted several harrowing cases that she has overseen in Nassau County due to drunk and drugged drivers. “I am making a direct request: the loophole in the drunk driving law needs to be closed. We need to make sure we have the tools to prosecute these cases. This legislation will save lives. If you get behind the wheel of a car and if you are impaired, you will be arrested and I promise you, my office and my staff will prosecute you.” 

Alisa and John McMorris, the parents of Andrew, gave their testimony about losing their twelve-year-old son in 2018 to a drunk driver. Andrew was with his troop of Boy Scouts on a calm autumn day, when a drunk driver plowed through the troop of boys, seriously injuring many, and killing Andrew. 

“Impaired deadly driving is no accident, it’s 100% preventable,” said Alisa. “Nationally, the numbers of impairment-related deaths are the highest they have been since 2006. A drunk-driving death happens every thirty-nine minutes. It’s equivalent to a 737 airliner crashing every week without survivors, and we do nothing. This holiday season, my family and many others will have an empty chair at the table that will remain empty forever.” 

The car Stacey and Timothy Carpenter were driving when they were struck.

Andrea and Timothy Carpenter were also present and gave their testimony. Their only child, Timothy, 22, was killed at the hands of a driver high on fentanyl this past March in Centereach. Andrea recounted Timothy’s final outing with his uncle Stacey to go to the store for an auto part. Stacey Carpenter was seriously injured and miraculously survived; he was also present at the press conference. 

“I can’t fully describe the agony it is to lose a child, let alone an only child,” said Carpenter. “Part of our heart and soul are missing. It’s the physical pain as well as the emotional pain. We wake up with this pain, stumble through the day and then go to bed with this pain.”  

Timothy’s killer was Christopher Guzman, of Farmingville, who was arrested but released without bail after the crash. He died of an overdose only months thereafter. 

The local elected and community leaders plan to descend on Albany January 9, 2024, to lobby for the bill’s passage. 

The Messenger wishes for safety on all travelers this holiday season and we implore that you plan ahead if you plan on drinking. It might just keep an extra seat at the table filled for the next holiday season. 

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Matt Meduri serves as the Editor in Chief of the Messenger Papers and writer of America the Beautiful and This Week Today columns. As a graduate of St. Joseph's University, Matt has been working in the political journalism field for over 5 years. He is a multi-instrumentalist, enjoys cooking and writing his own recipes, and traveling throughout the United States including Guam.