Crash victim’s survivors advocate for Colorado law change
Changing Colorado law to require mandatory testing for alcohol and drugs to all motorists involved in accidents resulting in death or injury is the primary motivator of the family of Meleyna Kistner, the 21-year-old college student killed last year in a head-on collision on Highway 133.
But standing in their way could be a 2013 U.S. Court Supreme ruling, which limits when officers can take a blood sample without a warrant when drivers refuse to agree to a test.
“When officers in drunk-driving investigations can reasonably obtain a warrant before having a blood sample drawn without significantly undermining the efficacy of the search, the Fourth Amendment mandates that they do so,” the ruling said.
During last week’s two-day sentencing hearing, Kistner’s surviving relatives, many of whom live in Illinois, said they were dumbfounded that the Colorado State Patrol administered drug and alcohol tests on Kistner and her boyfriend Daniel Thul. Thul was asleep in the passenger seat of his 1998 Chevrolet Cavalier and was hospitalized with multiple injuries. He nearly lost a foot from the accident and has six pins in his ankle.
Tests were negative for alcohol or drugs on Kistner and Thul. Colorado law requires that deceased or unconscious drivers be automatically tested. Thul consented to the test.
“Our state talks about unconscious and dead drivers and how they are automatically tested,” Pitkin County Judge Erin Fernandez-Ely said at Friday’s hearing. “The difference is when you are not unconscious, you have a right to be told about the express consent law, that you agree to take a test or if you don’t, you lose your license.”
Christine Tinner, who was driving a 2010 Honda hatchback that crossed the center line near mile marker 55, was not tested. State Patrol said it appeared Tinner fell asleep behind the wheel and that it didn’t have probable cause to test her for alcohol or drugs; Kistner’s family members have steadfastly questioned the feasibility of that theory.
The accident occurred at about 9 p.m. Tinner was driving home to Basalt from Crested Butte; the couple, both promising students at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Indiana, were on a road trip through the West.
Hospital lab tests, given to Tinner some 90 minutes after the accident, tested negative for alcohol. Kistner’s relatives said they were relieved to learn that information last week but said that didn’t mean she had not consumed alcohol before the accident. There also was evidence of prescription drugs in her vehicle, they said.
The State Patrol has said that Tinner didn’t have alcohol on her breath and she was lucid and spoke clearly at the accident scene, which is why it didn’t seek a warrant to test her.
“You can’t tell me when somebody dies there’s no probable cause for testing somebody,” said Kistner’s mother, Ruth Cofre-Carlson.
She said it appeared the State Patrol profiled Thul. “They take a look at Dan — he has long hair, they’re probably young kids going through Colorado trying to get some pot. I really feel there’s some discrimination here and it’s so unjust.”
Thul was tested because he appeared confused, the State Patrol said.
Some family members suggested the State Patrol profiled Kistner and Thul because they were young and fit the stereotype of college-aged kids.
“They took blood tests of Daniel and Meleyna,” Kistner’s stepfather Ron Carlson said at Thursday’s hearing. “’Oh, there’s a couple of hippies, they were high on drugs’ and the other one wasn’t even tested.”
Kistner’s father, Remo, said that “certainly changing the law so that any driver involved in a fatality is tested” would “give families much needed closure, and more importantly we would all know the truth.”
Her stepmother, Heather Eddy, said a law change is paramount to getting justice.
“I don’t really care what you sentence her to,” Eddy told the judge Friday. “At this point, Meleyna won’t have justice until the law is changed.”
Tinner’s attorney, Dan Shipp of Basalt, said he agreed that mandatory tests should be issued to drivers in accidents resulting in injury or death.
“I do agree with the Kistners and Carlsons with respect to drivers getting tests, absolutely,” he said. “I do agree with that concept and I would certainly recommend to Christine that that be a project to do.”
Rabbi Mendel Mintz, a character witness for Tinner, said he would be on board championing the legislation.
“I hope the law being passed would give them comfort and strength,” he said.
Cofre-Carlson and other relatives said Tinner should play an instrumental role in trying to change the law.
“I think she should be very involved in trying to change this legislation,” Cofre-Carlson said. “That she should advocate for it. Work with whatever organization, whether it’s MADD or whatever, and she should stay on board until this law is changed.”
A status conference in the case is set for Tuesday. Fernandez-Ely did not issue a sentence at the conclusion of Friday’s session because Tinner had a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized. The judge said she wants to hear what Tinner has to say before she decides the sentence.
Tinner, 47, has pleaded guilty to careless driving-causing death and careless driving-causing injury, both misdemeanors.
A mother of two teenagers, she teaches at the Aspen campus of Colorado Mountain College.
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