Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Sacramento jury finds man guilty
in 'unique' nitrous oxide DUI case

A Sacramento jury found Jeffrey Hutchings guilty Wednesday of driving under the influence of nitrous oxide in an incident variously called "unique" and ”one of a kind.”

The trial in People v. Hutchings,#10T00976, started Monday before Superior Court Judge Lawrence Brown and ended Wednesday afternoon with a swift verdict of guilty from a jury of eight men and four women.

The trial, though comparatively insignificant in the grand scheme of things, considering there were six murder trials underway at the same time in the same courthouse, was of keen interest to inveterate court-watchers who termed it "unique" and "unusual."

Brown mentioned during the trial that pre-trial research could locate no previous case similar to this one, which therefore made it, in its own small way, one of a kind.

Careening car on road, canisters on floor...

Hutchings was arrested by Folsom police about 7:30 p.m. Jan. 16 just off Highway 50 near White Rock and Scott roads after being followed there by an off-duty security guard who was simultaneously cell phoning authorities about Hutchings’ erratic driving.

Hutchings was tracked until he stopped the vehicle he was driving in the middle of the narrow road. Hutchings was at the wheel, with an unnamed passenger in the seat beside him, investigators reported.

The vehicle, an Audi, was owned by an unnamed “girl friend” of Hutchings. Neither the girl friend nor the passenger appeared in the trial.

The first lawman on the scene was a Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office detective who happened to be in the vicinity when the initial call came in.

Coincidentally, the detective was an experienced drug enforcement trainer. He said Hutchings displayed several signs similar to those observed in people under the influence of certain “inhalants” such as nitrous oxide.

NO found

Among these signs was Hutchings’ initial failure to respond immediately to requests and questions, but then his quickly return to a normal-seeming coherence in the few minutes it takes for the effects of nitrous oxide to wear off, the detective said.
Nitrous oxide (NO) commonly known as laughing gas, is a chemical compound with the formula N2O. It is an oxide of nitrogen. At room temperature, it is a colorless non-flammable gas, with a pleasant, slightly sweet odor and taste. It is used in surgery and dentistry for its anesthetic and analgesic effects. It is known as "laughing gas" due to the euphoric effects of inhaling it, a property that has led to its recreational use as a dissociative hallucinogen. -- Wikipedia
Responding Folsom police officer Paul Rice took over the investigation. He reported finding scads of expended NO canisters littering the floor of the driver and passenger section of the Audi.

Some were found under the brake and accelerator pedals.

Among the items found

In his closing argument Darren K. Indermill, a deputy attorney general temporarily working with the Sacramento prosecutor on an experience-gaining program, recounted the items found in the vehicle.

The items included 42 expended canisters of NO and two unexpended canisters of NO. Also included was one expended NO still attached to the “cracker” device that breaks the seal on the thumb-sized canister containers to allow the NO gas to inflate an attached balloon, from which the user inhales the high-producing gas.

Also discovered in the vehicle were two full, unopened cartons of unexpended NO canisters and many more unused balloons.

Found, too, was a receipt for $32.65 from the “Twisted Smoke Shop” which investigators later learned sold NO paraphernalia similar to that found in the vehicle. It was found in Hutchings’ pocket. The time and date stamp on the receipt was for just one half hour before the traffic stop.

A spirited defense

Assistant Public Defender Melissa Whitehead called no witnesses and Hutchings did not testify, but the young defense attorney put on a spirited closing argument, even eliciting a friendly laugh from the jurors at one point in her delivery..

Whitehead reminded the panel that the off-duty guard following the vehicle did not report seeing the occupants passing anything between themselves, something which would appear to be necessary considering how the inhalants are used.

Based on the descriptions given by detectives and criminalists the process of inhaling the gas under these on-the-road circumstances would have required one person to complete the inflating process while the other person operated the vehicle. Then the driver would have had to occupy himself, at least briefly, with leaning over to snort the gas.

The defendant, who is said to be in his latter 20s was quiet (not to be confused with blasé) throughout the proceedings. He came in casual dress, did not testify and, in fact, appeared to say nary a word during the three-day event.

Although the prosecutor’s and the defense attorney’s personal styles differed markedly, both were effective counsels.

Dressed in a black suit and light-colored shirt and tie, Indermill walked though the mounting evidence doggedly.

Garbed in a black suit jacket and slacks and her light hair held in a pony tail, Whitehead talked fast and coherently in her closing argument.

Both used projected slides on a screen to itemize their points for the jury.

The receipt in the pocket was perhaps persuasive

But alas – for Whitehead and Hutchings, anyway – the jurors found the pile of evidence presented by Indermill to be insurmountable.

The erratic driving, the odd behavior, the used opened canisters of NO and the related gas-inhaling tools, the many balloons and, of course, the smoke shop receipt in the suspect’s pocket, all added up to an unfavorable verdict for the defense.

A sentencing date and time and the potential penalties that Hutching faces, were not yet available.


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