A Nassau County jury convicted Joseph Beer, 19, of four counts of vehicular manslaughter in June 2014 for a 2012 car crash that left four of Beer’s friends dead. Beer, who admitted to smoking marijuana before speeding over 100 mph on the Southern State Parkway, was also found guilty of reckless driving and reckless endangerment, both misdemeanors. Beer now faces five to 15 years in prison when he is sentenced for the fatal accident. Jurors were not able to reach a verdict on the top charge of aggravated vehicular homicide, which carries a sentence of up to 25 years behind bars. In addition, after deliberating for four days, jurors, were also deadlocked on charges for manslaughter, driving without a license, and driving while ability impaired by drugs. Nassau County Judge David Sullivan declared a mistrial on these charges. District Attorney Kathleen Rice stated that she would decide “shortly” on whether or not to retry the case.
In October 2012, Beer, who was only 17 at the time, was driving 110 mph with four friends in his vehicle when he smashed into a tree, causing the car to rip into two pieces. While Beer only suffered from minor injuries, his four friends, ages 17 through 18, were pronounced dead on the scene.
Prosecutors claimed that a combination of “speed and weed” caused the fatal accident. However, an expert witness from the Yale School of Medicine appeared to have cast some doubts as to whether Beer was impaired by marijuana at the time of the crash. The expert testified that the amount of marijuana in Beer’s system wasn’t an adequate way to determine if Beer was impaired at the time of the accident because he was a chronic marijuana user. Beer’s attorney stated that the jury’s deadlocked decision on the top charge of aggravated vehicular homicide showed that the jurors didn’t believe his client was impaired at the time of the crash.
DA Rice stated that she believes Beer was impaired at the time of the accident. She remarked, “To what extent that [marijuana use] impairs your ability to operate a car, I think common sense dictates that it does impair your ability to operate a motor vehicle at normal speeds, much less when you’re driving 110 mph at night in a very fast car.” She also stated that she will reject the defense’s request to seek youthful offender status for Beer, which would lower his sentence to a maximum of four years in prison.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, marijuana can impair a driver’s ability to operate a motor vehicle. The Institute states, “Considerable evidence from both real and simulated driving studies indicates that marijuana can negatively affect a driver’s attentiveness, perception of time and speed, and ability to draw on information obtained from past experiences.” In an extensive study conducted from 2001 through 2006, 14.1 percent of high school seniors stated that they had driven under the influence of marijuana over the preceding two weeks.