CRIMINAL LAW – Admissibility of drug use when no intoxicated: Steve Burton v. Commonwealth of Kentucky (SC 10/29/2009)

Steve Burton v. Commonwealth of Kentucky
2006-SC-000784-MR October 29, 2009
Opinion by Justice Scott; all sitting.

After a head-on collision with another vehicle, Burton was convicted of manslaughter, second-degree assault and operating a motor vehicle on a suspended license. On appeal, Burton argued that he was unduly prejudiced by the introduction of his urinalysis results showing trace amounts of cocaine and marijuana. The results did not show intoxication or the time of ingestion. The prosecution argued that the results were relevant to show wanton conduct on the part of Burton. The majority distinguished the case from published opinions where after intoxication was established by other means, urinalysis results were then deemed relevant to show the type of intoxicant. The Court ruled that the relevance of the urinalysis results depended upon “the conclusions compelled by supporting evidence” and held that in this instance the prosecution lacked supporting evidence to make the urinalysis results relevant. The Court reversed the manslaughter and assault convictions and affirmed the driving on a suspended license conviction. The Court also warned the trial court on remand to scrutinize under KRE 702 the proposed testimony of a certain prosecution witness—a “drug recognition” instructor. Chief Justice Minton (joined by Justice Abramson and Justice Cunningham) concurred in part and dissented in part, asserting the majority’s opinion represented a “startling departure from precedent.” The minority contended that Burton’s drug use in the recent past was “a relevant and probative factor from which the jury could have reasonably inferred that Burton was impaired at the time of the tragic accident.” Justice Abramson (joined by Chief Justice Minton and Justice Cunningham) also concurred in part and dissented in part by separate opinion, arguing that the statement of the paramedic who treated Burton
provided “supporting evidence” to make the urinalysis results relevant.

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