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Conviction overturned in vehicle fatality

Family of woman who was killed upset at ruling

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Rita Lujan, in January 2004 with a picture of her daughter, Angel Garcia, says the prolonged court process has been difficult to endure.

Rita Lujan, in January 2004 with a picture of her daughter, Angel Garcia, says the prolonged court process has been difficult to endure.

Lisa Marie Miller, Deseret Morning News

The Utah Court of Appeals has overturned a man's drug conviction stemming from a November 2001 automobile accident that instantly killed a 19-year-old Salt Lake County woman.

News of the Friday decision upset members of Angel Garcia's family, with the woman's mother calling the latest decision in the nearly 2-year-old case "sickening."

"It's been really hard," Rita Lujan said. "It's one thing after another. It just keeps dragging on."

Garcia died when a truck driven by Jeffrey Donald Ireland ran a red light near 4000 South and 1300 West and struck her passenger car. Two witnesses said Ireland ran the light going 45 mph, according to a police report.

A blood draw taken shortly after the Nov. 3, 2001, accident revealed marijuana and a small amount of methamphetamine in Ireland's system.

In reversing Ireland's conviction, the appeals court said the state's illegal possession of controlled substance law cannot be applied to cases in which the controlled substance is already being metabolized into a person's body. No drugs or drug paraphernalia was found in Ireland's possession, according to the opinion.

The court agreed with Ireland's argument on appeal that the word "consumption," as used in the statute, applies only to the actual act of introducing a controlled substance into the body. To find otherwise, the court said, could subject drug addicts to "continuous guilt" because of the near-constant presence of drugs in their system.

"Additionally, with improved drug testing, such as hair follicle analysis, the state's broad definition of 'consumption' could subject individuals to prosecution who used drugs months or even years prior because of the substance's continued presence in their bodies," the court said.

The Deseret Morning News has chronicled the Ireland case, and Friday's unanimous ruling is just one more bump in an already lengthy and troubled prosecution. Because of complicated problems with evidence, prosecutors declined to charge Ireland with automobile homicide or negligent homicide.

Instead, the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office charged Ireland with one count of illegal use or possession of a controlled substance, a third-degree felony, and a class B misdemeanor charge of driving with a measurable controlled substance in the body.

Now, a full year after Ireland was paroled from the Utah State Prison, even the third-degree felony charge has been rejected.

"Basically you can drink and drive and be convicted, but you (can) have any drugs in your system and it doesn't matter," Lujan said. "It's just an example of what you can do to beat the system, I guess."

Not necessarily, said Paul Boyden, executive director of the Statewide Association of Prosecutors. In response to the Ireland case, the Utah Legislature in 2003 passed a law that applies to cases when a person drives and causes death or serious bodily injury with drugs in their system. The statute makes reference that "possessing" the drug includes having the substance in the body.

The new law was successfully used in the prosecution of Tory Lee Jacques, who hit a Magna family as they were walking to a McDonald's in October 2003. Six-year-old Darius "Buddha" Smith was killed in the accident.

Jacques received a sentence of one to 15 years in prison after pleading guilty to second-degree felony vehicular homicide.

Not yet having read Friday's opinion, Boyden was unable to say whether the new law would fix the problems raised by the Court of Appeals. However, he said, he will review the court's decision and pursue any legislative fixes that he deems necessary.

E-mail: awelling@desnews.com