In January, Keith Kilbey, 23, was among the first people to be arrested for driving under the influence of drugs in the wake of limited recreational marijuana sales becoming legal; he crashed into a Colorado State Patrol vehicle and damaged a second one.
Local media organizations that covered Kilbey's arrest, including this one, focused on the DUID angle. But when Kilbey was sentenced last week, news broke that he was incredibly drunk -- more than three times over the legal limit -- in addition to being high at the time of the collision. Afterward, the Washington Post accused the State Patrol of manipulating the press to push the stoned-driving angle -- a charge a CSP spokesman vigorously denies.
"Any assertion that the Colorado State Patrol has attempted to sensationalize the incident is untrue and ridiculous," writes Sergeant Mike Baker, corresponding via e-mail.
The original release about the January 11 incident can still be found on the Colorado State Patrol Facebook page, along with photos from the scene. The opening paragraph reads: "Two more patrol vehicles were struck last night while investigating a crash. This crash, a result of an intoxicated driver, comes just weeks after two patrol vehicles were hit on I-70, east of Aurora, resulting in injuries to one of our Troopers."
The release goes on to note that just before 9 p.m. on the 11th, two troopers were "investigating a crash on the ramp to I-76 from northbound I-25." They'd positioned their vehicles -- a Ford Crown Victoria and a Dodge Charger -- in a manner intended to block the left lane of the ramp, and their emergency lights were activated.
Nonetheless, Kilbey, behind the wheel of a Chevy truck, apparently didn't see them. He smacked into the Crown Vic, pushing it into the Charger. Neither of the troopers was hurt, but their vehicles sustained heavy damage.
Shortly thereafter, the release points out that Kilbey "was arrested...and charged with Driving Under the Influence of Drugs."
In a subsequent interview with Westword, another CSP rep, Trooper Nate Reid, confirmed that the drug in question was marijuana. However, one comment suggested another substance may have also been a factor. "Everybody knows that driving under the influence is illegal," Reid told us. "And just like alcohol is legal when it's used away from a vehicle and away from driving, marijuana is now legal away from driving, too. But when you mix the two, it can be dangerous."
Nonetheless, alcohol isn't mentioned in the CSP release -- and neither is it suggested that the charges against Kilbey went beyond driving under the influence of drugs.
New information about the case surfaced on June 5, when the 17th Judicial District DA's office informed the press about Kilbey's sentencing: He was given thirty days home detention and eighteen months probation for crashing "while drunk and stoned."
Yes, Kilbey was both. Tests showed that he had 10 nanograms of active THC in his bloodstream -- double the limit established by a still-controversial stoned-driving law. But his blood-alcohol content was illegal by an even greater margin. He registered at .268, more than triple the legal intoxication standard. Clearly, he was so blotto on booze that he would have been an extreme danger to everyone on the road even if he had no pot in his system.
Seizing upon this revelation was the Washington Post's Radley Balko, who wrote a piece entitled "Colorado's poster boy for 'stoned driving' was drunk off his gourd."
Balko wrote that "Kilbey's alcohol consumption was by far the more likely cause of his impairment on the night of his wreck," yet the focus of coverage on the incident had been entirely on weed. Why? Here's his take:
It's hard to put too much blame on the media who bit on the Colorado State Patrol's efforts to make Kilbey the face of pot-impaired driving. They weren't at the scene, after all. And the CSP kept Kilbey's toxicology reports quiet. But perhaps a little reflection is now in order. It's hard to imagine that with a .268 BAC, Keith Kilbey didn't reek of alcohol. Unless he's a seasoned alcoholic, he was also likely falling-down drunk. Did they not give him a breath test at the scene? Isn't it at least a little bit curious that shortly after Amendment 64 took effect, CSP would play up the possibility that he was high but make no mention that he was drunk?
We asked CSP spokesman Baker for his response to the Washington Post piece, and he minces no words. In his view, "the accusations it makes regarding the Colorado State Patrol's handling of the incident are wildly inaccurate."
"Troopers (including myself) accurately reported what was relayed to them by on-scene investigators during the initial phase of the incident," Baker maintains. "Kilbey appeared to be intoxicated, and based upon evidence in the vehicle, physiological indicators, and Kilbey's statements, Troopers were investigating the possibility that marijuana impairment was a contributing factor in the crash.
"My unit did not learn of Kilbey's alcohol impairment until recently," he adds.
Regarding Balko's argument that alcohol was more likely than pot to have fueled the crash, Baker notes that "Troopers detected indicators of Kilbey's impairment by each substance. They appropriately charged Kilbey with driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol or both -- because he was impaired by both substances."
Even though drugs were the only substance mentioned in the CSP press release, Baker feels news agencies were responsible for the theme of coverage. He writes: "Several media outlets focused on the reported/suspected marijuana impairment, a popular topic in light of the (then) newly relaxed regulations on private marijuana sales. However, at no time did the Colorado State Patrol draw disproportionate attention to the subject of Kilbey's impairment. The matter was handled as it has been and will be in any other impaired-driving crash.
"Rather, the key proactive message from the Colorado State Patrol focused on our rising concern for the safety of our Troopers," he continues. "The crash, which damaged two patrol vehicles, was one of a series of similar crashes that began in December and has continued through the spring. We recognized the danger to our Troopers at that time, and as such, our primary safety message revolved around the move-over law rather than impaired driving or the newly relaxed regulations on private marijuana sales."
He offers this anecdote as an example: "I conducted a television interview during which I repeatedly was asked about marijuana and the danger it presents to the public. While I acknowledged that ANY impaired driving represents a public-safety risk, I asserted that our primary concern in the Kilbey crash was the ever-growing danger to our Troopers while performing their jobs on Colorado roadways. I refused to use the incident as a platform to make any kind of statement (positive or negative) regarding the new laws. Every one of my Troopers in the Public Affairs Unit has followed suit."
As for the "poster boy" charge, Baker points out that "beyond a day or two after the incident -- and only based upon media inquiries -- the Colorado State Patrol has not mentioned Keith Kilbey, let alone demonized him in a public forum."
His final words on the subject: "Some marijuana supporters seem to believe that law enforcement has conspired with the media to tarnish the reputation of a 'harmless plant.' Some marijuana detractors believe that law enforcement is not doing enough to curb the substance's use. The Colorado State Patrol does not take sides; we enforce existing DUI/D laws (as our Troopers did in this case) and report information as it is given to us during an incident (as my unit did in this case).
"Any assertion, suggestion, or implication to the contrary is unequivocally false."
Here's a larger look at Kilbey's booking photo:
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Send your story tips to the author, Michael Roberts.
More from our Marijuana archive circa January 13: "Marijuana: Are new pot smokers an even bigger danger when they drive high?"