Back in October, the Minnesota Supreme Court reversed the DWI convictions of woman who was arrested on three separate occasions—in 2014 and 2015—for driving while under the influence of Dust-Off, a refrigerant-based propellant cleaner that contains difluoroethane (DFE) and which is commonly used to blow dirt and dust out of computer keyboards. However, it is also a common inhalant for people wishing to get high on DFE.
The Court held that it overturned the woman’s conviction because DFE is not currently listed as a hazardous substance under state law and, thus, cannot “technically count as grounds for a DWI conviction.”
Obviously, there was some hair-splitting and dictionary consultation to determine whether the current DWI statute intended chemicals such as DFE to be included as hazardous substances. The Court added that if the state legislature intended to criminalize operating a motor vehicle while knowingly under the influence of ANY substance that can impair one’s driving, then it should have used different language and more specific terminology.
This decision was not unanimous as Associate Justice Anne McKeig argued that the law’s wording does, in fact, make room to add DFE to the hazardous substance list.
Other states weigh in
In Montana, the state Supreme Court ruled that a motorist can be convicted of DUI for operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of inhaled aerosol propellants. This unanimous decision arose when a local man was charged with felony DUI following a toxicology report proving he was under the influence of several substances—including DFE—when he crashed into a utility pole back in 2013. This instance was the defendant’s fourth DUI, hence the felony charge.
The defendant’s attorney tried to argue—not unlike the Minnesota case—that state law only defines “drugs” in the context of pharmacological regulation, and since DFE is not intended for any medical use, it was not a drug under the law. The Court agreed with the trial judge and stated that the plain meaning of drug does include any substance that alters a person’s consciousness or perception. The Court added that it didn’t think the legislature wanted to limit the scope of DUI laws by overemphasizing semantics and foolishly thinking that the law only applied to substances that were regulated by pharmacists.
In another case, in 2014, a 19-year-old Illinois woman was charged with multiple counts of reckless homicide and aggravated DUI following a positive toxicology report for DFE. Her lawyer alleged that DFE is not a specified intoxicant under Illinois law and, further, that the law under which his client was charged is vague and, therefore, unconstitutional. The defendant struck and killed a five-year-old girl who was walking on the sidewalk with her family, and was ultimately sentenced to five years in prison. At the heart of this case is the fact that DFE is not mentioned in Illinois’ Use of Intoxicating Compounds Act—along with other chemicals that are commonly inhaled today.
The bottom line
The biggest problem is that huffing can cause temporary paralysis and, in some cases, loss of consciousness. This makes driving after huffing particularly dangerous. Thus, regardless of whether DFE—or any other drug—is not on a controlled substance/drug list, many argue that any chemicals that substantially impair the driver’s ability to safely operate their vehicle is intoxicating enough to sustain a DWI charge.