SANTA FE (AP) - People convicted of driving under the influence of prescription or illegal drugs must have an ignition interlock installed on their vehicles as required by New Mexico's drunken driving law although the devices don't detect the use of drugs, the state Court of Appeals has ruled.
The court's precedent-setting ruling overturned a decision last year by a district judge in Santa Fe who determined that the ignition interlock requirement was unconstitutional for someone whose impairment was caused by drugs rather than alcohol.
An interlock can only detect the presence of alcohol. Drivers must blow into the devices, which prevent a vehicle from starting or continuing to operate if someone has have been drinking and their blood-alcohol exceeds a certain amount.
New Mexico has required ignition interlocks for anyone convicted of DWI since 2005.
Linda Atkinson, executive director of the DWI Resource Center, applauded the court's ruling and said Thursday it will help in New Mexico's fight against impaired drivers. "It's true that we know that an ignition interlock doesn't detect drug use but we also know a lot of times there's dual use. It's not just drugs people are using. Sometimes it's alcohol with drugs," Atkinson said in an interview.
The court's ruling came Wednesday in the case of a woman arrested in 2009 in Santa Fe County for driving under the influence of drugs. A blood test found the presence of the prescription painkiller oxycodone as well as a sedative, which as a brand name drug is called Valium. The woman, Tara Valdez, pleaded guilty to a first-time DWI offense but challenged the requirement to have an ignition interlock.
Her lawyer, Alex Chisholm, of Albuquerque, declined comment on the ruling but said he will ask the state Supreme Court to review the case.
The Appeals Court concluded there was no violation of state and federal constitutional equal protection guarantees.
The ignition interlock requirement, the court said, is rationally related to the goal of the Legislature in protecting the public from motorists unable to drive safely because of drugs or alcohol.
"In sum, the Legislature is outlawing impaired driving in and of itself, not the method by which one becomes impaired," the court said in an opinion written by Chief Judge Celia Foy Castillo. "And here, defendant was not merely ingesting prescription drugs under a doctor's care; she was operating a vehicle while impaired by those drugs."
The interlocks are required for one year for a first offense and for the rest of a person's life if an individual is convicted four or more times of DWI, which in New Mexico is "driving under the influence of intoxicating alcohol or drugs."
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