UPDATES & ANALYSIS

3.13

A second urine test needed for OWI conviction, Iowa Supreme Court rules

by Rox Laird | March 13, 2019

An initial urine test by itself, without follow-up confirmation, was insufficient evidence for convicting a driver of operating while under the influence of a controlled substance, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled March 8 (State of Iowa v. Jeffrey John Myers).

Myers appealed his conviction in Floyd County District Court for operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of a controlled substance. Myers argued the trial judge should have suppressed the State’s evidence of “possible presence” of a controlled substance in his urine because the initial urine test was not sufficient without being confirmed by a follow-up test.

On further review of an Iowa Court of Appeals’ ruling upholding the lower court, the Supreme Court reversed the judgment and sentence and remanded the case to the District Court for dismissal of the charge.

Myers was found guilty under Iowa Code Chapter 321J.2(1)(c), which makes it illegal to operate a motor vehicle “while any amount of a controlled substance is present in the person, as measured by the person’s blood or urine.”

Myers was convicted on the basis of an initial test that showed the possible presence of amphetamines and marijuana in his urine.

He argued that was not enough, and that a second test of his urine sample should have been performed to confirm the initial result. The State argued the initial result was sufficient evidence under the statute, or, in the alternative it was sufficient in combination with the circumstantial evidence gathered in the police officers’ field sobriety tests indicating Myers was operating under the influence.

The Supreme Court disagreed, holding that initial test results were not enough to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that Myers violated the statute.

The Court was in unanimous agreement on that point, explained in an opinion for the Court by Chief Justice Mark Cady joined by Justices Brent Appel and David Wiggins. Justice Edward Mansfield filed a separate opinion, joined by Justices Thomas Waterman and Susan Christensen, concurring that the initial lab report was not enough to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, but he said the test result could have been considered in determining Myers’ guilt or innocence under a different section of the OWI statute.

Justice Christopher McDonald did not participate in the case.

Testing urine for controlled substances generally involves a two-step process: an initial test, which can show the presence of compounds in a drug group rather than a specific drug, and a follow-up test using a different analysis to identify a specific drug compound.

The “confirmatory test” is a safeguard against the potential flaws in the initial drug test, Cady wrote.

This two-step process is required by State law for employment drug testing in Iowa, and by federal regulations for federal employees.

The Court concluded the same standard should apply in criminal cases.

“If confirmatory testing is a part of workplace drug testing, it would be just as important, if not more important, in the criminal justice system,” Cady wrote.

“We conclude the results of the initial testing of the urine specimen, alone, is insufficient to satisfy the burden of proof required of our criminal justice system. To support a conviction under the statute, the test must identify an amount of a controlled substance in a blood or urine sample beyond a reasonable doubt. Without other evidence, a test that only identifies the ‘possible presence’ of a controlled substance falls short of satisfying the reasonable doubt standard.”

The Court also disagreed with the State’s argument that the initial test results combined with the officers’ observations and field sobriety test supported Myers’ conviction. Circumstantial evidence may be considered in determining whether a person is “under the influence” as defined by Iowa Code section 321J.2(1)(a), Cady wrote, but Myers was convicted under section 321J.2(1)(c), and the only issue under that section is whether a test shows the presence of a controlled substance.

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