June 27, 2007
ALBANY, N.Y. -- Acknowledging the decision reveals potential "gaps" in the law, New York's highest court said Wednesday that a driver who "huffed" a stimulant spray couldn't be charged with driving while intoxicated in a crash that left a teenager dead.
The ruling effectively narrows the definition of intoxicated driving to the effects of drinking alcohol or taking certain drugs.
"If defendant did what the prosecution charges, then his conduct was reprehensible," wrote Chief Judge Judith Kaye in the unanimous decision. "Perhaps gaps exist in the law ... however, a determination by this court that intoxication in Vehicle and Traffic Law includes the use of any substance would improperly override the legislative policy judgment."
Neither could the driver have been charged under a 1966 law against driving while high on drugs because that law covers only "explicitly enumerated drugs," the decision stated.
The court traced the evolution of drunken driving laws to 1910 in analyzing whether inhaling an aerosol could be a cause of intoxication.
"The (1910) law did not _ as it does not today _ define `intoxication,"' Kaye wrote. In 1919, an appellate court adopted a rule that "one is intoxicated when he has imbibed enough liquor to render him incapable of giving that attention and care to the operation of his automobile that a man of prudence and reasonable intelligence would give."
Huffing is inhaling the chemicals given off by glue, aerosols and other substances that can act as stimulants. It replaces oxygen in a person's lungs and can be fatal.
The court said it would be up to the Legislature to address huffing and new ways to get high. State Sen. Catherine Young, an Olean Republican, sponsored a bill this year that would have expanded the definition of "drug" to include "inhalants and glues" in the driving while ability impaired by drugs law. It passed the GOP-led Senate in March, but didn't get out of committee in the Democrat-led Assembly.
In the case considered by the court, Vincent Litto was also charged with manslaughter, vehicular manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, reckless endangerment, assault and other charges after the 2004 wreck. Litto, who was 19 at the time, was accused of driving 50 mph in Brooklyn when he picked up a can of "Dust Off" and sprayed it into his mouth. About 45 seconds later, he crashed into an oncoming car, leaving a 17-year-old girl dead and others, including himself, injured.
"I think it's significant in that hopefully district attorneys offices won't do something like this again," said Litto's attorney, Anthony Bramante.
He said Litto's trial can now go forward, without the driving while intoxicated charge. Litto has been free while he challenged the intoxicated driving charge.
Brooklyn Assistant District Attorney Ann Bordley didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.
By MICHAEL GORMLEY Associated Press Writer