The defendant cried. Family and friends of the three dead victims cried. The clerk cried. And the judge cried.
At the center of all this misery in Albany County Court last Friday was a gaping hole in our state laws and in our perceptions as a society.
LuAnn Burgess could hardly speak as she told the judge, “Words cannot express the horror and remorse I feel every day.”
She was being sentenced for killing three walkers with her sport utility vehicle on Aug. 10, 2011. Part of a walking club, the three women had been standing in front of St. Matthew’s Church in Voorheesville when Burgess hit them.
“She asked if anyone was hurt,” recalled a witness, describing Burgess’s mental state midst the carnage at the scene of the crash.
Burgess had answered Judge Stephen Herrick in November, as she pleaded guilty to three counts of negligent homicide, that she had been speeding, distracted, and under the effects of six different prescribed medications.
She suffers from Parkinson’s disease. The drugs were prescribed by her doctor who did not tell her she should not drive after taking them.
Burgess faced up to six months in jail, but several of those who spoke in the courtroom Friday — predictably her own lawyer but also, surprisingly, relatives of the victims — asked that she serve no jail time.
Judge Herrick sentenced Burgess to time served, five years of probation, and 600 hours of community service. Also, she will never drive again.
The district attorney, David Soares, whose office took nearly a year to charge Burgess has said the case presented questions as difficult as any he has encountered. After the sentencing, Soares said, “There is nothing you could look to, to lean on, any past precedent.”
A jury conviction would have been difficult, he said, because Burgess was taking legally prescribed drugs. Soares said that drug manufacturers and physicians are, along with Burgess, responsible for her use of drugs and driving with them.
The assistant district attorney prosecuting the case, Mary Tanner-Richter, who pushed for jail time, said, “I think every person in this room would agree the most important goal, that we all have, is to make sure a tragedy like the one that occurred on August 10, 2011, doesn’t happen again.”
We don’t see how sending Burgess to jail would have prevented this from happening again. Rather, as a society, we need to take a hard look at the problem and make some changes. First, we need to educate ourselves.
In 2007, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration came up with the first national prevalence estimates for drug-involved driving. In a field study, drivers were stopped randomly at 300 locations across the continental United States. More than 14 percent of weekend, nighttime drivers tested positive for illegal, prescription, or over-the-counter medications. For daytime drivers, 11 percent were drug-positive.
As citizens, we need to be aware of this problem, to protect our own safety as well as that of others. Friends shouldn’t let friends drive drugged anymore than they should let them drive drunk.
Across the nation, there has, in the last half-century, become a widespread acceptance that driving while intoxicated is harmful and therefore illegal. The laws followed the data and consciousness-raising. As a result, the numbers of people killed or injured in drunk-driving accidents has declined.
However, drugged driving laws have lagged behind drunk-driving laws. As the National Institute on Drug Abuses points out, part of this is because of the difficulty in determining drug levels, effects of combinations of drugs, and resulting impairments. By contrast, it’s relatively simple to measure a .08 percent blood-alcohol content, which is the legal limit for driving nationwide.
A number of states — Arizona, Delaware, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode island, South Dakota, Utah, Virginia, and Wisconsin — have come up with a simple solution: per se laws that make it illegal to operate a motor vehicle if there is any detectable level of a prohibited drug, or its meabolites in the driver’s blood.
But the drugs Burgess took were not “prohibited” drugs; they were prescribed. Parkinson’s is a degenerative disorder marked by early symptoms of shaking, rigidity, and difficulty moving. Most people are able to drive during the first stages of the disease if they are taking medications to control their symptoms, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Commission.
Making a scapegoat out of one drugged driver wouldn’t have solved the problem. We need to raise awareness and make changes in how doctors and drug companies inform patients about their use.
Medical associations need to develop clear guidelines and take a stance on the issue, medical schools need to teach their students about the perils of not warning patients, and it would be wise to appoint a state commission of experts to review current laws and practices to make recommendations to improve the system.
We wrote in October 2011, soon after the toxicology report for Burgess was released, that the Albany County Sheriff said, “I know a lot of people want to see a charge, but the law’s the law.” A person needs to have clearly broken the law to be convicted.
We wrote then, too, that sometimes an accident is just that — accidental, a matter of chance, not intention.
We are grateful in that tear-filled courtroom last Friday, justice was served. It is remarkable and commendable that both the judge and the district attorney saw that the responsibility for the deaths went beyond Burgess.
Until our society has made some significant changes, it behooves each of us, as individuals, to be aware of drugged driving. If one of us is taking a drug that makes it unsafe to operate heavy machinery — and the labels for this on both over-the-counter and prescription drugs must be made clear — we should not drive.
Driving is not an inalienable right. Safety is more important.
We should offer rides to friends or family members who take prescription drugs or call organizations like Community Caregivers to get rides. The drugs that affect driving are commonplace, ranging from allergy pills to medicines that help us sleep. We need to be vigilant.
That is the way to stop the tears.