A Closer Look

Drug test not done in tragic Port Clyde crash

Blood tests for alcohol are required under state law; drug screenings are another story
By Juliette Laaka | Mar 13, 2014
Testing for drugs in fatal crashes is not mandated by state law. Testing for alcohol in the blood is. This question was raised at a March 6 public hearing when St. George residents asked why the driver in a fatal Port Clyde crash was not tested for drugs.

At the March 6 public meeting in St. George, District Attorney Geoffrey Rushlau said results of a blood test on the driver in the fatal Port Clyde crash revealed she was not under the influence of alcohol, but a drug screen was not administered because she showed no signs of impairment.

Residents wanted to know why her blood was not tested for drugs.

A drug test was not given to Cheryl Torgerson, 61, of New York because the lead investigator, Sgt. John Palmer of the Knox County Sheriff's Office, did not suspect she was under the influence of drugs on the day she inexplicably drove onto the Monhegan Boat Landings Pier, injuring three and killing a child.

Dylan Gold, 9, of Cohasset, Mass. was killed, and his mother, Allison Gold, 51, and younger brother Wyatt, 6, were injured. Port Clyde resident Jonathan Coggeshall, 68, was also seriously injured.

A State Police vehicle autopsy determined there was no mechanical defect with her 2007 Infiniti that led to the crash. The report stated Torgerson may have had her foot on the brake and throttle at the same time just before crash.

The district attorney said Torgerson is not being charged with a crime because there is no evidence she was in a criminal state of mind at the time. To prove criminal liability, the state would have to prove intention and knowledge, or recklessness and negligence. A charge of manslaughter, defined as reckless or criminal negligence causing death, will not be brought against Torgerson, as there is no evidence she was acting in a grossly different manner from what might be expected of any other person in that situation, or that she knew her actions would harm another person.

When asked if she personally felt a drug test should have been administered on Torgerson, Knox County Sheriff Donna Dennison said, "I feel OK, because I know if Sgt. Palmer had suspected anything, he would have given her a test." Dennison said Palmer was with Torgerson for many hours on the day of the crash, and would not have missed signs of impairment, as he is trained to detect such signs.

Dennison said Torgerson has the right to refuse a blood test, but said she volunteered to have the test.

If somebody refuses a test, his or her license can be suspended up to six years with no court hearing, according to state law.

Dennison said in the event of a fatal motor vehicle crash, or one causing severe injury, a blood test is always administered to determine if the driver is under the influence of alcohol, whether or not they appear impaired.

Dennison said the test is given to cover all the bases.

Maine State Police Spokesperson Steve McCausland said by state law, operators of a motor vehicle involved in a fatal crash are tested for alcohol in their system. It is not mandatory to test for drugs in the same case, he said, unless an officer suspects drug use.

If a person seems to be under the influence of drugs, a drug recognition expert from a state or local police force is called to investigate and perform a series of tests to determine probable cause for believing somebody is under the influence of drugs. Deputy John Hansen of the Knox County Sheriff's Office is trained as a drug recognition expert, but he was not called to the scene in Port Clyde, said Dennison.

He said the blood would have to be sent to a laboratory in Maryland, and investigators would have to identify which drugs they were specifically looking for in her blood.

Dennison said the state has its own lab in Augusta that her office has sent blood to for examination. She said in larger cases, perhaps blood is sent to Maryland instead.

She said blood is used also because urine deteriorates quickly, and blood can be kept longer. When asked if Torgerson's blood is still stored in the Augusta lab, she said she was not certain.

McCausland said blood is usually taken to determine if alcohol is present in somebody's system rather than urine. He said he was unsure if it is the same case with drugs.

Pathologist Bill Lambie of Pen Bay Medical Center said the hospital does have the capability to administer general drug screens.

Torgerson's blood was taken at Pen Bay Medical Center, which was confirmed by Rushlau at the public hearing in St. George.

Lambie said the hospital can do screens on both blood and urine, but said urine is primarily used by Pen Bay to determine the existence of drugs in a person's system.

The general screen includes testing for opiates, amphetamines, and benzodiazephines, for example. Narcotics fall under the category of opiates, he said.

The urine screen is more qualitative than quantitative, Lambie said, meaning the test reveals what drugs are in the system, but not necessarily how much or specifically what type of drug is present until it is sent for confirmation at a lab in Minnesota, he said.

For example, the test will indicate there is an opiate present, but not specifically heroin.

Drugs are found in the system by antibodies, that are designed to recognize and attach to the drug, Lambie said.

Blood samples are usually sent to larger laboratories, even in medical cases, as blood screening is more technical because blood is filled with protein, and the drugs in question must be isolated to read the results.

He said that is the case in a medical test, rather than a forensic test, as would be done in the case of a potential crime being committed.

Lambie said medical tests are, however, admissible in court proceedings and law enforcement would have to subpoena the records.

Police could not come into the Emergency Room and say they want a blood test done on a person to determine if they have drugs in their system, he said. Lambie said if police wanted to have a patient's blood tested, they would have to bring in a subpoena for the test.

He added that patients can refuse medical treatment at any time.

Lambie said physicians focus on the medical care of the patient, not how the individual came to the hospital.

He said law enforcement have their own channels in determining drug screenings.

"Having said that, we do have the capacity to do the test," he said.

Testing for toxicology, including blood, for forensic purposes, must follow a chain of custody, and follow certain protocols to ensure a patient could not tamper with or dilute the test. The blood or urine must be sealed, and the process would be watched by certified personnel to enure collection was done correctly, and sent directly to the lab, Lambie said.

Dennison said blood can be drawn at any hospital. Police use what is called a blood kit, and whoever draws the blood as well as transports the blood to the appropriate laboratory must log his or her name, citing the chain of custody.

To prove a person was operating under the influence of drugs, Knox County Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy Tim Carroll said police cannot just  test for drugs that cause impairment, but must identify specifically which drugs need to be tested for.  He added for example, that marijuana can remain in the system for 30 days, a person can test positive for a drug they took days or weeks ago that did not effect them at the time of a crash.

"It is a horrible, horrible thing," Dennison said of the fatal crash, adding Torgerson is still ultimately responsible for the tragedy.

A message seeking comment from Sgt. John Palmer was not returned by press time.

Courier Publications' reporter Juliette Laaka can be reached at 594-4401 ext. 118 or via email at jlaaka@courierpublicationsllc.com.

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Juliette Laaka
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594-4401 ext. 118
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Juliette primarily covers the cops and courts beat for The Courier-Gazette.

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