Charges in the Wake of Panama City Traffic Fatality Serve as Reminder of the Separation of Different Court Systems

Panama City car accidents can have a myriad of causes. Victims of impaired drivers in Panama City should be aware that they may have recourse in civil court, regardless of the decisions made by prosecutors.

The News Herald reported this week on the criminal charges stemming from a Panama City traffic fatality last fall. On September 16, 2011, an accident involving a car and a motorcycle occurred at the intersection of 15th Street and Lisenby Avenue. The crash claimed the life of Noah Lee Sarvis. Personnel at Bay County Medical Center found that the other driver, Felton Keith Bland, had marijuana in his system. Police recommended that Bland be charged with DUI or manslaughter (criminal charges), but prosecutors disagreed. Instead, Bland has only been charged with careless driving. Careless driving is a civil traffic violation, not a criminal charge.

The decision to file the civil traffic charge was explained in a letter that Chief Assistant State Attorney Greg Wilson wrote to the investigating officer from the Panama City Police Department. Wilson attributed the decision to the level of THC in Bland's system at the time of the accident. THC is the active ingredient in marijuana. Levels of THC can hit triple digits shortly after an individual smokes marijuana but can fall back into the single digits within one hour. Tests at the hospital after the accident measured Bland's THC level at 4.8 nanograms per milliliter.

While the law specifies blood alcohol levels that qualify for a presumption of impairment, no such specific guidance exists with marijuana and levels of THC. Attorney Wilson's letter explained that Bland's THC measurements were low enough that additional evidence would be needed in order to show impairment. He suggested that, in his office's view, a THC reading above 3.5 nanograms per milliliter could give rise to a driving under the influence charge only if there were additional indicators of impairment such as witness testimony that the driver's behavior suggested impairment. No such indications existed in the September crash and police had not performed any field sobriety tests. Wilson suggested that a reading of 2.0 nanograms per milliliter would not support a DUI charge even where other evidence suggested impairment.

Attorney Wilson noted that the accident was tragic, but defended his office's decision, noting that there was only a very small amount of marijuana in Bland's system. The News Herald shared a report that Bland was found guilty of careless driving last week and fined $1,400, but noted that this could not yet be confirmed.

It is important that car crash victims and their families understand that the civil court system in the U.S. is distinct from the criminal courts. A private civil suit for damages can be filed, and can be successful, even with minimal or no criminal charges or civil traffic charges. The actions of prosecutors in these cases do not necessarily dictate what private legal rights victims have in these cases. Individuals injured in a car accident, or surviving relatives of the victim of a fatal crash, should seek the assistance of a Panama City accident lawyer to determine whether they may be entitled to compensation for their injuries and property damage losses.

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