Pot smoking linked to crash

<b>CORRECTION</b><br>A photo caption in Friday's Review-Journal about the bail hearing for a Nevada Highway Patrol trooper charged in a fatal accident misidentified prosecutor L.J. O'Neale.

An off-duty Nevada Highway Patrol sergeant who caused a three-car crash with one fatality smoked marijuana a maximum of four hours before the accident, prosecutors said Thursday.

Sgt. Edward Lattin, 46, appeared in Justice Court by teleconference from the Clark County Detention Center, where he has been held since his Tuesday arrest on one felony count of driving under the influence resulting in death. The offense carries a penalty of two to 20 years in prison without the possibility of probation.

Lattin was driving a Ford F-150 truck on June 11 when the accident occurred near Rainbow Boulevard and Hacienda Avenue. The three-car collision claimed the life of 49-year-old Ying Warren.

Prosecutors said the 20-year Highway Patrol veteran, who supervised a unit that investigated fatal car wrecks, had enough marijuana in his system to be impaired during the accident.

"He smoked marijuana between three and four hours before the crash," said Bruce Nelson, a deputy district attorney with the vehicular crimes unit. "He could have smoked it even before that."

Lattin appeared on screen shackled and dressed in blue scrubs issued by the county jail. He remained stoic through the court proceeding, only answering "Yes, your honor," when asked by Judge Eugene Martin if he understood the charge against him.

Lattin's attorney John Watkins said the prosecution's contention that Lattin smoked pot only hours before the accident is wrong, because there's no credible way of determining that.

"I don't believe they can tell when he smoked it," Watkins said. "It could have been anytime prior, within days, weeks."

Watkins said his client was not impaired during the crash. Watkins said he didn't know how marijuana got into Lattin's system and that secondhand exposure might have been the cause.

Martin set Lattin's bail at $50,000. He also barred Lattin from driving and required him to take random drug tests.

The prosecution had asked for a $100,000 bail.

Watkins asked that Lattin be released without bail, citing his client's 20 years as a law enforcement officer. He also said his client was not a flight risk.

Both prosecutors and the defense attorney said the judge's decision was fair.

According to the detention center Web site, Lattin was still in custody late Thursday evening, although Watkins expected his client to post bail.

Watkins also defended Jessica Williams, who in a March 2000 crash struck and killed six teenagers collecting trash in the median of Interstate 15. Watkins said both Lattin and Williams had similar amounts of marijuana in their systems during their accidents.

A jury determined that Williams was not impaired at the time of her crash, but convicted her of driving with prohibited substances in her blood. She is serving a prison sentence of 18 to 48 years.

The Nevada Supreme Court upheld her conviction.

Testimony at Williams' trial indicated that she and a friend used the drug Ecstasy about 10 hours before the crash. Testimony also showed that she and the friend smoked marijuana about two hours before the accident.

Watkins said the real culprit in the Williams and Lattin crashes is a faulty state law that convicts people who have marijuana in their system for driving impaired, even if they're not.

"The law puts unimpaired drivers in jail for DUI, which is ludicrous," Watkins said.

According to a police report, Lattin exceeded the amount of marijuana in his body that is legally permissible while driving.

Tests showed Lattin had 5.6 nanograms per milliliter of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, in his system before it was metabolized, and 26 nanograms per milliliter of THC in his blood after it was metabolized. THC is the active drug in marijuana.

State law allows drivers to have in their bodies 2 nanograms per milliliter of THC before it is metabolized and 5 nanograms per milliliter after it is metabolized.

The law permits trace levels of marijuana to be in a driver's system because of issues with secondhand exposure.

Watkins plans to use the same strategy to defend Lattin as he used in Williams' case: that Nevada's law is unconstitutional under the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. He cited a 1999 Georgia Supreme Court ruling in Love vs. Georgia.

In that case, Everette Bryan Love was stopped by police for speeding in 1996. Police smelled marijuana in his car. He was arrested for driving under the influence.

The Georgia Supreme Court ruled the law for driving under the influence of marijuana was unable to draw a distinction between users of legal and illegal marijuana.

It also found that the law was arbitrarily used and, therefore, was unconstitutional because it violated the equal protection clause.

Watkins argument regarding equal protection in the Williams' case did not sway the Nevada Supreme Court, which found the argument irrelevant because Nevada had no legal medical marijuana users at the time. But Watkins said there are now about 1,400 legally licensed medical marijuana users statewide.

"Now there are medical marijuana users and equal protection comes into play," Watkins said.

Nelson said the argument that the state law that prohibits driving while having more than trace amounts of marijuana in the body is a bad one and doesn't apply in Lattin's case.

"Everybody should know better than to illegally smoke marijuana and get behind the wheel," Nelson said. "But I would think someone who saw the carnage and death caused by people impaired by drugs or alcohol is the last person in the world who should be smoking marijuana and driving."

On Thursday, Highway Patrol officials announced a new internal investigation into Lattin's accident that could lead to his dismissal for having an illegal substance in his blood. The Nevada Department of Public Safety also is conducting an investigation.

Lattin's base pay is nearly $76,000 a year. The Highway Patrol does not randomly drug test its officers.

"We are moving forward with a disciplinary process that will accelerate any personnel action that might be taken," said Highway Patrol Chief Chris Perry.

When that process is completed, Lattin will have 10 days to request a predisciplinary hearing, Perry said.

Contact reporter Antonio Planas at aplanas@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4638. The Associated Press contributed to this report.