Driving while huffing cases raise legal questions

11:25 PM, Jun 14, 2012   |    comments
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GOLDEN VALLEY, Minn. -- There are legitimate uses for aerosol keyboard duster sprays, but inhaling the fumes while driving a car is not one of them.  When a man was stopped two days in a row for that behavior it raised questions about Minnesota's DWI laws.

"You know if you're doing this at some point you're going to go unconscious," Sgt. Steve Johnson of the Golden Valley Police told KARE.

"And you're driving a car an inhaling a substance, heading down the highway. Who knows what could happen at that point."

Sgt. Johnson had his first encounter with a driver under the influence of a keyboard duster spray April 13, when he responded to a report of an erratic driver heading westbound on Highway 55 approaching the Highway 100 interchange.

When Johnson arrived, he found the suspect's car in the grass, next to the ramp to southbound Highway 100. The car was still in drive, and the driver appeared to be unconscious with his foot on the brake.

"We pounded on the windows but he was wasn't responding, so we placed a squad car in front of his car to keep it from taking off into traffic."

The driver, David Steven Anderson of Mound, eventually opened his eyes but appeared confused, according to Sgt. Johnson. The veteran patrol officer at first suspected a diabetic reaction or some other medical emergency.

"Are you a diabetic? No. Do you have any medical issues? No. And then I looked down and he had the can between his legs with a red straw, a real thin red straw in it."

It was a can of keyboard duster, containing a warning that "intentional misuse has serious health hazards and can be fatal."

Eventually Johnson arrested Anderson on suspicion of operating a vehicle under the influence of a hazardous substance, a misdemeanor.

Anderson was formally charged weeks later, after a blood test revealed the presence of 1,1 difluoroethane, the hazardous ingredient in keyboard dusting spray.

Johnson said Anderson, after being booked, was released to a relative. But the next day he drew the attention of the Orono Police Department when his car was spotted off the road near County 15 and Westwood Road in the village of Minnetonka Beach.

Sgt. Johnson just happened to be driving to work along that route.

"I saw a BMW off in the opposite lane of traffic in the weeds and the grass, and I saw the license plate, and I said, that's the same car I had last night!" Johnson recalled.

He immediately phone the Orono police and was connected to one of the officers on the scene. He asked them to check Anderson's car for a can of keyboard dusting aerosol.

"And they said, 'There is one.' And I said, 'That's what you're probably dealing with there. I had the same driver last night'."

Johnson said most patrol officers will react the way he did when they encounter such a driver, and assume it's a traditional alcohol case or a medical emergency. Most of the public awareness campaigns about toxic inhalants are geared toward teenagers, because some have died.

In fact, the Minnesota Twins and the Consumer Education Association teamed up last year to do a major public safety campaign, under the banner of "Strike Out Inhalants." It was aimed squarely at school children, because such inhalants are readily available.

The chemical produces a temporary high because it robs a person's body of oxygen momentarily. But driving while huffing, as the practice is often called, is rare -- especially for people beyond their teen years.

"This is taking it to a new extreme," Sgt. Johnson remarked. "With alcohol you're making a bad decision because you may become impaired, but with inhalants you know you'll be knocking yourself out on the road."

What concerned Johnson the most, however, was that the driver he arrested one night could be driving down the road legally the next day, potentially engaging in the same risky behavior.

"The first incident's going to have no bearing on his charges the next day, because it wasn't on his record already, and he wasn't convicted or revoked for any particular reason," Johnson said.

According to Minnesota statutes the driver's license would be revoked by the state if lab results confirm the presence of a Schedule I or Schedule II controlled substance. But those drug results aren't processed as quickly as traditional alcohol blood tests are.

The Orono Police on Thursday could not discuss the April 14th case, other than to verify the time and place of the traffic stop. They said no formal charges have been filed yet, because the toxicity results are still being evaluated by the city prosecutor.

Anderson was charged in Minnetonka this week, based on separate DWI stop May 3rd in that city. According to the prosecutor handling that case, it's based on blood alcohol results rather than impairment from hazardous chemicals.

(Copyright 2012 KARE. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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