HARRISVILLE — For Kristal Egelund, the death of Brittany Zoller last November when she was hit by a car while walking across U.S. 89 represented more than the loss of a daughter.
“She was my best friend. We did everything together,” Egelund said.
Since the Nov. 21, 2018, crash in the 1150 block of North U.S. 89 in Harrisville, an elaborate memorial to Zoller has taken shape inside Egelund’s home, where she had lived and a short walk from the accident site. Egelund, Zoller’s sister Erika Zoller and two other family members now have identical tattoos on the inside of their forearms in remembrance of Brittany, who was 29. The tattoos read, “The struggle is real but so are the dreams,” one of Brittany’s favorite sayings.
Beyond that, family members have enlisted the support of Utah Rep. Steve Waldrip, an Eden Republican, in pursuing legislation to toughen the penalties against those who drive after using marijuana. The driver of the car that struck Brittany was apparently high on the drug, according to the Harrisville Police Department report on the incident. But given differences in state statutes applicable in the matter relative to laws governing drunk driving, the driver, a 40-year-old woman, only faces a single count of driving with a measurable quantity of a controlled substance in her body. That’s a Class B misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail.
“Her consequences don’t fit the act she did,” maintains Scott Egelund, Brittany’s stepfather and Kristal’s husband.
It’s got Waldrip — also spurred by the death of Baylor Stout, 13, in a July 22, 2018 crash in Utah County involving another driver who had used marijuana — crying foul, lamenting what he sees as injustice. If the driver in the Utah County incident had been drunk, he said, “It would’ve been a very different situation.”
As is, the 32-year-old female driver responsible for that crash received a seven-month jail term, “a slap on the wrist,” Waldrip said. “That just doesn’t seem right.”
Even if Utah lawmakers act on the legislation Waldrip plans to submit in the coming 2020 legislative session, it wouldn’t retroactively apply to either incident. But for the surviving family members of Brittany and Balyor, that’s not quite the point.
“It doesn’t help our family but it helps other families and that’s what we want it for,” said Scott Egelund.
Staci Stout, Baylor’s mom, noted the legalization of medical cannabis in Utah and growing acceptance of use of the drug around the country as shown by the loosening of laws governing its use in many states. Combined with the effects marijuana has on user’s perception, she argues, new legislation is a matter of keeping up with the times.
“I believe anything that’s going to impair you when you’re driving, there should be a consequence associated with that. Our laws are not keeping up with the trends that we’re seeing,” she said. Beyond that, she thinks tougher laws would also have the effect of raising awareness about the dangers of driving while using marijuana or other drugs, helping reduce its prevalence in the first place.
Those are hardly the only deadly crashes involving alleged marijuana use. Alexander Salas faces three counts of driving with marijuana in his system, a third-degree felony, stemming from an Oct. 23 crash last year in North Ogden that killed two siblings, Molly Cox, 11, and Troy Cox, 13, and seriously injured their mother, Sheila Cox. According to charging papers, a blood test revealed he had a marijuana metabolite in his system and diazepam.
‘COULD NOT BE CHARGED WITH A FELONY’
The Stout family is from West Jordan and the crash that killed Baylor occurred on U.S. 89 near the southern Utah County community of Birdseye.
Baylor was traveling in a pickup with his father, Marty Stout, when an automobile driven by Kali Hardman, heading in the opposite direction, drifted into their lane, leading to the crash, according to the Daily Herald. The charging papers against Hardman say she tested for a level of five nanograms per milliliter of blood of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, one of the active ingredients in marijuana.
Ultimately, Hardman pled guilty to a count of driving with marijuana in her system and causing the death of someone, a third-degree felony. The charge requires a finding of negligence, and charging papers noted that the driver of another car reported seeing Hardman seemingly asleep at the wheel as her car drifted.
In the Harrisville instance, Brittany Zoller was walking across U.S. 89 in Harrisville at night when she was hit and killed by a car operated by Krystal Sly, according to the Harrisville police report on the matter. Sly submitted to a blood draw and tested for eight nanograms per milliliter of blood of THC, according to the report. THC, when present, “indicates either recent or chronic daily use of marijuana,” reads the report.
Still, Sly only faces the misdemeanor count, which she is fighting.
The driver, Weber County Attorney Chris Allred said in an email, “could not be charged with a felony unless we could prove impairment. In this case we could not prove impairment.” She was driving under the speed limit at the time of the accident, quickly stopped and attempted to aid Brittany, according to the police report.
At the same time, Sly’s lawyer, Tyler Ayres, noted the alcohol in Brittany’s system at the time of the crash. Though she wasn’t driving, Brittany’s body tested for a blood-alcohol level of 0.21%, more than four times the current legal limit for driving in Utah, 0.05%, and nearly three times the driving limit at the time of the incident, 0.08%.
“The young lady who died was extremely intoxicated and walking in the middle of a street with a 50 mph speed limit,” Ayres said, noting that the incident has had a dramatic impact on his client as well.
Waldrip, though, puts more onus on the driver and the fact that she didn’t seem to be “in full control of her faculties.”
In drunk driving cases, having a higher blood-alcohol level than the legal limit is enough by itself to presume impairment. In cases involving drivers who have used marijuana or other drugs, though, impairment or negligence must be shown by some other indicator, such as eyewitness accounts of erratic driving. His planned legislation, Waldrip said, would spell out a THC level that, by itself, indicates impairment, which would potentially give prosecutors means to seek tougher penalties in accident cases involving marijuana use.
“Why are we treating marijuana intoxication as a lesser offense than alcohol intoxication?” he said. His planned legislation, he said, “would simply mirror what happens with alcohol.”
Waldrip is studying laws in Nevada, which set an impairment level of two nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood, and Colorado, with an impairment level of five nanograms, as he crafts his proposal. Allred backs his efforts and Carl Hollan, the deputy Utah County attorney, will be watching with interest to see what Waldrip comes up with.
“We are interested in having the conversation and bringing this to more people’s attention and doing more research,” said Hollan.
Whatever the case, such legislation may not come without at least some controversy.
Some marijuana advocates say the drug doesn’t have the same effect on driving as alcohol, Waldrip said. Likewise, the body of research on the effects of marijuana use on driving isn’t as extensive as with alcohol use.
He’s not deterred, though. “To do nothing, I think, would be irresponsible,” Waldrip said.
Kristal Egelund, Brittany’s mom, and Staci Stout, Baylor’s mom, echo that.
Baylor “was the heart of our family. He’s desperately missed,” said his mom. “He has left an enormous hole in our family and our entire community.”
Kristal Egelund sees it as a matter of fairness and equity.
“Is it fair that someone high driving down the road is putting other people’s lives in danger? It’s not fair,” she said.