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Illinois teen found guilty in aggravated DUI based on huffing

Posted by Steven H. Fagan | Jul 23, 2014 | 3 Comments

A Highland Park teen who ran over a family of four with her father's Lexus, killing a young girl, was found guilty of aggravated driving under the influence (DUI) after confessing to being high on inhalants. In an unusual ruling, Lake County Circuit Court Judge James Booras found that the young woman who struck and killed a 5-year-old girl committed DUI even though the inhalant used for huffing was not specified in Illinois law defining intoxicating substances. The woman also struck and injured the child's mother, as well as her two brothers on Labor Day, 2012.

The attorneys at Fagan, Fagan & Davis focus on DUI defense in Illinois at courthouses in Cook County, Lake County and DuPage County.

A videotaped confession

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The defendant told investigators that she had been out of rehab for just two weeks on the day of the crash and that she made an “impulse decision” to purchase a computer air duster in order to get high. The defendant entered a plea of guilty, prior to the start of her trial, to a charge of reckless homicide.

According to court testimony during the trial on the DUI charge, the defendant said she cruised through Highland Park while inhaling from the aerosol can. The defendant also told investigators that she “must have passed out.” When the defendant regained consciousness, her father's car was touching a building near downtown Highland Park. The defendant recalled that people were loudly urging her to exit the vehicle.

During closing arguments, defense counsel, Doug Zeit, did not deny that his client was the cause of the “horrific crash.” Instead, the attorney focused on the argument that the inhalant used was not among those that are listed as intoxicants under Illinois law, and that his client's case did not properly fall within that legal prohibition.

Strong witness testimony

Testimony by witnesses, supplemented up by surveillance video, indicated that the defendant's vehicle veered through oncoming traffic before jumping a curb where the family of four was walking on a sidewalk. The surveillance video also showed the defendant's vehicle reversing before striking the injured girl a second time. According to a witness, the vehicle lurched forward again, striking the victim a third time.

That same witness testified that the defendant was not fully conscious as he pounded on the window in an attempt to prevent her from striking the victim again. The witness testified that the defendant asked “What happened?” when she regained consciousness.

Statements to law enforcement

A Highland Park police officer testified that the defendant approached him pleading with him to take her away, while she sobbed hysterically. The officer also testified that the defendant stated: “I did this.”

The defendant was placed in the back of a patrol car where she passed out. Later, investigators asked the defendant if she was under the influence of drugs or alcohol, to which she replied: “Not any more.”

Setting up grounds for an appeal

During a recent hearing regarding the types of inhalants that are not mentioned in Illinois law, the judge refused to reverse his ruling, stating that the defendant understood the consequences of her actions. "She knowingly inhaled until she achieved the result of unconsciousness  or semi-consciousness," Judge Booras said. "She understood (this) … from previous experience. … There's no room for confusion."

Lake County State's Attorney Michael G. Nerheim agreed with statements made by Judge Booras. "We knew we had a woman who decided to ingest a substance that she knew would impair her," he said, during a post-hearing news interview. "She got behind the wheel of a car and a young girl tragically lost her life."

Tough consequences for the defendant

Nerheim admitted that this case was difficult. "This is one of those cases where there really is no winner," he said. "I know that there are a lot of young people out there huffing and doing these things so I really hope that they are paying attention because this is what happens when people make these decisions."

Nerheim said the potential penalties for reckless homicide and aggravated DUI involving death can be punitive. "We certainly understand why the defendant would rather be sentenced for reckless homicide because the sentencing possibilities are much lower," he said. "We believe the facts fit the law and we certainly believe that the law is constitutional."

Nerheim said a presentence investigation of the defendant will look at all aspects of her life and will provide key information regarding the appropriate sentence for this case. "We will consider any mitigation. We certainly are aware of the aggravation in this case," he said. "This will send a very important message to the community that this is not going to be tolerated."

An appeal is expected

Nerheim also expects an appeal of the conviction as her attorney has, previously, argued that the substance inhaled, difluoroethane, is not specifically cited in the law that defines intoxicating substances. Judge Booras has referred to the motion as being “very strong,” but that the law clearly prohibits driving “if you induce intoxication.”

The defendant, who has been free on bail since her family posted a $500,000 bond, could receive probation or up to 14 years in prison when she's sentenced. A new sentencing date has not yet been set.

The attorneys at Fagan, Fagan & Davis have defended countless clients against DUI charges throughout the Chicago area courts, including those located in Cook County, DuPage County and Lake County. The attorneys at Fagan, Fagan & Davis understand which defense strategies are the most effective in court and how to challenge evidence gathered by law enforcement and offered by the prosecution. Contact us now for a free consultation.

About the Author

Steven H. Fagan

Steve Fagan earned his law degree from Chicago-Kent College of Law, is a member of the NCDD, NACDL, ISBA, IACDL and a founding member of the DUIDLA. He is published and has taught CLE for lawyers on subjects such as sex offenses, DUI and criminal defense, and focuses on Criminal and DUI trial defense.


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