A jury on Thursday found a 26-year-old Ranchos de Taos man guilty of causing a 24-year-old Taos woman’s death while driving under the influence of what a prosecutor characterized as a “cocktail” of prescription medications and marijuana.
The case highlighted New Mexico law’s lack of well-defined thresholds for what constitutes unacceptable levels of such drugs for motorists in a state where prescription drug abuse has contributed to some of the highest opioid overdose rates in the nation.
The prosecution’s characterization of the “poison” in Santiago F. Martinez’s system was in stark contrast to the defense’s argument that a blood test showed “normal” and “therapeutic” levels of the drugs in his system.
After two hours of deliberation, the jury found that OxyContin, marijuana and alprazolam, commonly used to treat anxiety disorders, contributed to his actions in swerving a 2005 Mercedes convertible into the wrong lane of U.S. 84 near Chama, causing a head-on collision that killed his passenger, Lindsay Hinds of Taos.
Jurors found Martinez guilty of two third-degree felonies of vehicular homicide and causing great bodily harm by vehicle while under the influence of drugs. They also found him guilty of possession of drug paraphernalia, a misdemeanor, and possession of less than an ounce of marijuana, a petty misdemeanor. Evidence showed that syringes containing marijuana extract were found in the car.
Martinez was driving the Mercedes west in the eastbound lane of U.S. 84 when the car collided with a GMC pickup. Hinds, who was the registered owner of the Mercedes, died at the scene.
Erik Scramlin, assistant district attorney, rested his case Thursday by showing jurors a picture of Hinds in a body bag on the road.
Martinez and the driver of the pickup, Lylon Vigil, 56, of Dulce, were both airlifted to a Farmington hospital.
Vigil testified this week that she suffered a broken right foot and six broken ribs in the crash, and that her vision was temporarily affected.
Martinez did not testify during the three-day trial.
In closing arguments, Sydney West, Martinez’s public defender, said Martinez was driving in the wrong lane because he was swerving to avoid a vehicle in his own lane that was trying to pass the pickup. She said the drugs in Martinez’s system did not impair his driving ability. West told jurors that under the state’s reasoning, anyone could be charged with impaired driving for taking a prescription drug before driving.
“That means if one of you, taking your normal medications, get involved in a fender-bender case that happens to be your fault, you could be charged with [driving under the influence] if you’ve got your prescription drugs in your system that otherwise wouldn’t be impairing, but because of the accident they were,” West said.
In an interview, West said a blood test found 3 nanograms of marijuana in her client’s system. She said that is lower than the acceptable limit of 5 nanograms set out in Colorado law. New Mexico has no such law. West said he also had “therapeutic” levels of the prescription medications.
Instructions given to the jury said, “A person is under the influence of a drug when as a result of using a drug the person is incapable of safely driving the vehicle.”
Scramlin said during his closing arguments that there was no evidence to support the claim that Martinez’s swerving was a result of anything but “a cocktail of poison that he put in his body before he got behind that wheel and drove erratically and into that truck, causing — he caused it, nobody else — causing this accident.”
Scramlin said Tuesday that Martinez could face more than 10 years in prison. A sentencing date has not yet been set.