AUSTINTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – A mother’s quest to find justice for her son has led her to a new mission — to change Ohio’s laws involving the testing of impaired drivers.
Deborah Reynolds stood in the kitchen of her Austintown home with a stack of papers in hand — research that she compiled after the death of her 21-year-old son in October of 2021.
Reynolds’ son, Christopher Fox, was one of the passengers in a box truck that crashed into a semi-truck on Interstate 71 in Wayne County. He and another passenger, 30-year-old Nicholas Holmes, were killed.
Reynolds had a close relationship with her son, and she took his death hard.
“He was my baby. He was my person — spoiled, spoiled, spoiled — but I will still pick up the phone sometimes to call him,” she said.
A 2018 graduate of Austintown Fitch High School, Christopher knew what he wanted to do in life and had just found his groove, Reynolds said. He loved cars and motorcycles and worked as a technician at Fairway Ford in Canfield. He had a son — now 5 — and a girlfriend with a daughter who he considered as one of his own.
Christopher also loved to cook and before he left on his trip, he bought the almost-2-year-old girl an early birthday present — a mini grill — and promised to “cook” with her when he returned.
He never came back, though.
Reynolds said Christopher had agreed to accompany a friend on a trip to St. Louis to pick up a gift for a friend’s wedding anniversary. Christopher was in the passenger side of the box truck when the driver, Zachary Carpenter, crashed into a parked semi-truck.
During the investigation, troopers say they found marijuana in the vehicle. Court documents in the case state that Carpenter had admitted that he smoked marijuana in the afternoon, on the day prior to the crash.
Carpenter was initially charged with two counts of aggravated vehicular homicide and OVI, but the charges were reduced and the OVI charge was dismissed. Carpenter ended up with a six-month jail sentence — less than Reynolds expected. Reynolds said it’s all because of a law in the Ohio Revised Code that prosecutors acknowledged made the case difficult to prosecute.
That law requires the collection of urine or blood to be done within three hours of the alleged violation, or it cannot be submitted as evidence in court. In this case, the collection was after the three-hour window as Carpenter was hospitalized following the crash and a trooper was not able to get to the hospital in that time frame.
Angela Wypasek, a Wayne County prosecutor, said this delayed collection time did affect the outcome of the case.
“Generally speaking, in our experience, the three-hour limit can usually be met and the collection can be done in a timely manner. Factors such as, for example, a suspect fleeing the scene or a suspect requiring immediate medical attention due to injuries received in a crash can affect the ability of law enforcement to obtain the specimen within the three-hour limit,” she said in a statement to WKBN.
At first, Reynolds was angry. How could a loophole in the law lead to the man who killed her son spending such little time in jail, she thought. But then she began doing more research and was left with more questions about what happened.
“I started out like, ‘This is my thesis, and I’m going to show this…’ but, I realize that, yeah that three-hour window, it actually allows people… not to face punishment because they’re like, ‘Hey, I could use this,’ and it’s thrown out. But, it has a very real possibility that it’s also convicting people that are innocent,” she said.
In Ohio and other states across the U.S., officers are using those urine and blood samples to determine THC intoxication. But as one researcher says, that’s not a great option, something Reynolds said she learned as she was doing her research.
“Doing a urine test does not prove that you were high at the time of the crash. It proves that you are a cannabis user,” said Dr. Jodi Gilman, director of neuroscience at the Center for Addiction Medicine and associate professor at Harvard Medical School.
Unlike alcohol, THC metabolites stay in a person’s system for days or even weeks after that person has used cannabis. Gilman said that is what makes the urine test unreliable. The problem with blood tests is that THC peaks quickly in the blood — within 10 or 15 minutes — even though a person may be high for a few hours after use.
Gilman’s team at Massachusetts General Hospital has been conducting research into an alternative way to test for THC impairment. The state legalized recreational marijuana use in 2016, but Gilman said even years later, there hasn’t been a good way to determine a driver’s impairment when it comes to marijuana.
The team’s research uses imaging technology through the use of a headband-like device, which measures brain activity in a person after marijuana use. Gilman said the research found that there were patterns of brain activation that indicated THC impairment.
Now, Gilman said their goal is now to develop a practical roadside application of the technology for law enforcement’s use during these investigations.
“So what’s happening, and this is happening in Massachusetts, is that all of the people who are genuinely driving while impaired, their cases are being thrown out because you can’t prove it. There’s just no way to prove it, so I think that the policy is way ahead of the science, and I think that we’ve rolled out cannabis without considering what it means for our roadways,” Gilman said.
Dr. Ryan Vandrey, a professor who works in the Behavioral Pharmacology Research Unit at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, was also involved in research into the best ways to detect cannabis impairment. The study, published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology in 2021, found that traditional field sobriety tests also had limitations.
“We had people missing performance on some aspects of that before they even got the drug, and we had several cases where people were performing just fine when we knew that they were impaired and functioning on other tasks,” he said. “So those field sobriety tests that are used right now were very carefully developed to detect impairment due to alcohol use, and alcohol is pharmacologically different from cannabis.”
He said researchers did find the app DRUID to have some practical applications for detecting cannabis impairment, but he said he believes that would be best used in workplace settings as each person’s baseline is different. The app allows people to perform a variety of tasks and then measures that person’s cognitive and motor function.
He said more research is needed into the issue.
“There was an intense push to legalize cannabis at the legislative level. I think people were aware of this issue. But, I’m not aware of many states that have legalized cannabis then putting funds toward figuring this problem out,” he said. “So they’ve kind of legalized it, then just left it alone. ‘Somebody else figure this out,’ right? And, so that’s a concern. The legislators that have pushed this through have not followed on to look at the public health impact of this legislation.”
There is a push to fix some of these issues legislatively with a bill that has the support of members of the Ohio Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
Introduced by Senator Nathan Manning in June 2021, Senate Bill 203 proposes getting rid of “per se limits” as the only standard for determining THC impairment, which means that a urine or blood test would not be the standard for determining that impairment. Other evidence, such as an officer’s observations during a traffic stop, would be used to determine whether a driver is under the influence, and drivers could present evidence in court that they weren’t impaired.
Attorney Blaise Katter, who assisted with the drafting of the bill, said Ohio is somewhat unique in its use of per se law for the inactive compound in marijuana — a law that makes it easier to determine alcohol impairment but doesn’t make sense for other substances.
He said current law states that a driver can be charged and even convicted if the concentration exceeds a set level, even though what is being tested is not the active compound in cannabis that causes impairment, but rather what is left behind sometimes days after a person uses the substance.
“Right now, hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent people are finding they are getting convicted of this OVI, because while they were not impaired — I would say clearly not impaired — their urine test came back with this prohibited, inactive metabolite, and at that point, they’re automatically guilty,” he said.
Having a medical marijuana card is no defense, he said.
“If you are, for example, a veteran dealing with PTSD and you have a medical marijuana card in Ohio, and let’s say you use a small amount of an edible to fall asleep every night. You wake up in the morning, 100 percent sober, and you’re driving your kids to school. You’re guilty of OVI and child endangering — period, no question about it,” Katter said.
Katter and Manning said Senate Bill 203 — while not perfect — is a good compromise until the technology has time to catch up.
“We’re just trying to modernize how we do this with science and actually punish those people that are driving impaired, driving high under marijuana, but not unfairly punish people that could have legally done medical marijuana or legally done recreational marijuana in another state a few days ago and then are driving but technically over the per se limit, where if you’re over the limit, you’re automatically guilty,” Manning said.
Ohio State Highway Patrol Lt. Nathan Dennis, who has handled such investigations, acknowledged that drug-related impairment cases have increased more recently, but he said many officers are trained to look for specific indicators, rather than just rely on drug and urine cases.
All of the states have Drug Recognition Experts, though it’s not required for law enforcement departments. Lt. Dennis said there are about 175 certified experts throughout the state of Ohio.
Officers or troopers who are certified have to attend classes and must complete 12 successful evaluations in the field.
Drug Recognition Experts are used after the person’s arrest to complete an evaluation and determine impairment. They will look for indicators of drug impairment, such as dilated pupils and eye movements, and will look into whether the person may be experiencing a medical issue.
“Obviously, we don’t test somebody prior to placing them under arrest for drug impairment, so that [drug and urine] testing comes after the fact,” Lt. Dennis said.
As for Reynolds, her research into the issue has been eye-opening.
While she initially took issue with the three-hour limit for collecting specimens, she also sees flaws in Ohio’s THC testing laws, in general.
“There’s the flip side of that coin, and it was hard for me to swallow at first… it needs to go beyond that. It’s a little more complicated right now,” she said.
Reynolds can’t bring her son back, but she is hopeful that his death can bring about some meaningful changes. She is now spending her time reaching out to local lawmakers in the hopes that they’ll hear her story. She already spoke with Senator Nickie J. Antonio (D-Lakewood), who said she was heartbroken by Reynolds’ story and acknowledged that legislators need to educate themselves on this issue.
“I think our leaders need to take a look at this and make sure that there are not other mothers in this situation,” Reynolds said.