DOJ Toxicologist Testifies, Dash Cam Video Played, Defendant Testifies Again in Marijuana DUI

YoloCourt-25By Tiffany Yeh

Sarah Lopez is charged with driving under the influence of marijuana, on February 23, 2016, in West Sacramento. Judge Janene Beronio was presiding, with Deputy District Attorney David Robbins representing the People and Deputy Public Defender Dan Hutchinson representing Ms. Lopez.

CA State Dept. of Justice Toxicologist Nadina Giorgi testified on behalf of the prosecution. She is a Senior Criminalist at the DOJ and tests blood and urine samples for drugs other than alcohol. Ms. Giorgi has worked for more than 11 years as a toxicologist and has testified in court over a hundred times about drugs and samples.

Ms. Giorgi described the process of testing of drugs in a blood sample. First, the sample is screened for the drug class and they look for a group of compounds. Then, they look for individual compounds to confirm. For example, marijuana has three separate compounds.

A negative control (blood with no drugs in it) and a positive control (blood with drugs added) are used as comparisons during the testing. The negative control, positive control, and the sample in question are tested simultaneously.

The drug is extracted from the sample, put into a machine, and separated by its passage through a long tube, and how long the substance keeps its coating is noted somehow, and then the substance is fragmented. Data is then produced. Ms. Giorgi described her analysis of the sample (at least for marijuana) as qualitative, not quantitative, because that is the procedure for marijuana (as opposed to some other substances) at the lab.

The test date of the blood was September 14, 2016, and Ms. Giorgi stated that she wrote the report nearly contemporaneously to the testing.

Mr. Robbins referred to the report written by Ms. Giorgi, which is an analysis of Sarah Lopez’s blood sample. The report has not currently been entered into evidence, and arguments about its admission will proceed later, outside the jury’s presence. Ms. Giorgi described there being no problems with the positive or negative controls, the name of the person was the same on the sample tube and the envelope, and there was no noticeable time discrepancy (she described more than 10 minutes as being of some concern).

Ms. Giorgi stated that the three compounds found in the sample and listed on the report are: tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), hydroxy THC, and carboxy THC.

She stated that the machine is able to measure levels of marijuana in nanograms and partial nanograms, although the DOJ is not currently doing marijuana quantifications.

Mr. Robbins asked Ms. Giorgi how long THC can be present in blood. She replied that marijuana, when smoked, can have THC in the blood that increases and then drops within the first couple of hours, then decreases much more slowly. She emphasized that it depends on how much the person smokes marijuana and also their use history.

She explained that, for a first time user, you may not see levels of THC but, for a longtime user, THC can be in the blood for several days.

Ms. Giorgi went on to explain that, over time, you can see less THC in the blood. Over a few months, you would not expect the THC level to decrease.

An anti-coagulant (which prevents separation of the red blood cells and white blood cells) and a preservative (which prevents the growth of microorganisms) were in the same tube as the Ms. Lopez’s blood sample.

It was unclear whether Ms. Giorgi was, at this point, referring to the primary component of marijuana (tetrahydrocannabinol) or to all three components as stated earlier.

The remainder of the dash cam video was watched in court. Interestingly, for the jurors to re-watch the footage during jury deliberations, the dash cam video needs to be shown in open court, most likely because certain portions of the video were deemed not admissible in court. The jurors were allowed to read a transcript of the audio of portions of the video they watched.

Two footages were put side by side during the video. In one, the dash camera of the video looked out of the vehicle. The other footage showed Ms. Lopez during some of the time. She was heard crying while speaking to an officer. Ms. Lopez’s bag/backpack was seen on video as searched by an officer. Later, she was read her Miranda rights.

Mr. Hutchinson asked the defendant, Ms. Lopez, some questions. The defendant said that she had handled a “blunt” (marijuana wrapped in a tobacco leaf) that morning. She stated that she saw “roaches” (the remains of a blunt or “joint”) in the ashtray later. The prosecution argued that the blunt was in the ashtray.

Ms. Lopez stated that she was sitting in the back of the car and, in the glove compartment, there was a nugget of marijuana. She remembered crying while talking to the officer.

Ms. Lopez stated that it wouldn’t have gone that far and said something about “f—“ing Sarah. She stated that she was not laughing at any point while talking to the officer during the footage.

The judge allowed Mr. Robbins to ask Ms. Lopez if she had stated that the officer exaggerated the results of the field sobriety test. She answered in the affirmative, while Mr. Hutchinson objected, arguing that the question was outside the scope of what was asked in direct examination.

About The Author

The Vanguard Court Watch operates in Yolo, Sacramento and Sacramento Counties with a mission to monitor and report on court cases. Anyone interested in interning at the Courthouse or volunteering to monitor cases should contact the Vanguard at info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org - please email info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org if you find inaccuracies in this report.

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  1. Dave Hart

    They went to a lot of trouble to ascertain that the defendant had THC in her blood, but they didn’t present any evidence what the effect of having THC in the blood does to a driver.  Being high on marijuana is in no way related to being drunk.  The plain fact is, at this point in time, there have been no studies to document anything like a dangerous level of THC in the blood like there has been for alcohol.  The effects of alcohol on reaction time, cognitive awareness of dangers, etc. can all be measured and documented.  None of that has been done for THC.  So while we can choose to split hairs over the legality of having THC in one’s blood because of stupidly enacted laws that tried to make a plant (one of God’s creations) illegal, there is no objective standard yet in existence to show a level of danger to the public.  There may well be one, but it has not yet been determined.  Prosecuting this person is an exercise in personal moral outrage by the D.A.’s office and I think it is a misuse of public funds.

    1. hpierce

      In most DUI/DWI charges, those are two separate charges… for alcohol, it is a BAC and/or DUI… DH is correct… there is no current BAC for amphetamines, OTC antihistamines or MJ… but driving under the influence is still DUI/DWI…  it is about behavior, and ‘factors’…

      Alcohol is a naturally occurring substance… our ancestors found mead by accident.

      Wine and beer were mainly naturally occurring from simple processes… fermentation… ages old…

      MJ can, without a blood level criteria, be the basis for DUI/DWI…  but it has to be (currently) based on driving behaviors, as is true for OTC antihistamines, alcohol, etc.   … what is “influence”?  Not sure, legally, but could include  MH issues (taking Lithium, bi-polar [if not at a median state], depression, anger, etc.).

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