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November 11, 2009 - Impairment Debated in Trial Over Officer's Death

Lawyers locked horns yesterday in a Bucks County courtroom over whether marijuana affected a Levittown, Pennsylvania, man's driving, making him culpable for the death of a police officer.

Whether Frank Wallace Budka Jr., 45, was impaired by combining pain medications he legally took with marijuana is at the center of the vehicular-homicide case before Common Pleas Court Judge Albert J. Cepparulo.

In closing arguments, the prosecution insisted that trace amounts of marijuana detected in blood tests, plus Budka's slurred speech and disoriented behavior, painted a circumstantial picture of culpability.

Bucks County Deputy District Attorney Robert James said Budka "should have been aware" that smoking marijuana while on prescribed amounts of methadone and the painkiller dilaudid would impair his driving.

"There are [warning] labels affixed to every bottle of methadone in his apartment," said James, his voice rising.

But the defense argued that the judge should look to the blood evidence, not behavior, in making a judgment about Budka's mental acuity. The defense presented a toxicology expert who said the amount of marijuana in Budka's blood was not enough to cause poor driving.

"Mr. Budka has admitted he was fiddling with a Snapple bottle and the radio, and that would make him seem stupid, but it does not constitute impairment," argued defense attorney Barnaby C. Wittels.

Budka pleaded guilty Monday to a dozen charges relating to the accident; the judge yesterday accepted the plea. Budka was on trial only on a charge of vehicular homicide while under the influence of a controlled substance.

The judge is expected to rule on the case at 9:30 a.m. tomorrow.

Middletown Patrolman Christopher Jones, 37, a married father of three, died Jan. 29 when Budka slammed into Jones' car on Route 1 in a chain reaction that pinned the officer under his cruiser.

Jones, who was walking back to his car during a routine traffic stop, died at a hospital of multiple injuries without regaining consciousness, a doctor testified.

An accident investigator testified that Budka's car was moving at 63 m.p.h. when it hit a Pontiac before plowing into Jones' cruiser at 38 m.p.h., pushing the two vehicles 22 feet.

Budka did not testify during the two-day trial. There was no testimony from Jones' family or about his character. Both families declined to comment after testimony ended.

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