EVERETT — An Everett man who was high on methamphetamine when he caused a fatal crash in 2017 could have spent a lot more time in prison than the sentence he received Tuesday afternoon.
The case against him boiled down to what prosecutors felt they could prove.
As it stands, Keith Ryle, 52, is headed to prison after a judge handed down a sentence of two years and three months. He could have spent more than a decade behind bars.
Ryle admitted that he was high on methamphetamine in the fatal October 2017 crash near Lake Stevens that killed a friend who was a passenger. What prosecutors couldn’t prove is if Ryle’s driving was impaired by his drug use.
That’s because, aside from alcohol and THC, there’s no defined legal limit for how much drugs — like methamphetamine — people can have in their bloodstream.
Deputy prosecutor Tobin Darrow said that proving his impairment would have been difficult — even though a blood draw tested positive for methamphetamine, at the rate of 0.54 milligrams per liter. That’s more than 23 times the median amount found in drivers who have been using methamphetamine, according to a study by the National Traffic Safety Administration, prosecutors wrote.
Ryle pleaded guilty in May to vehicular homicide with disregard for others, considered a nonviolent offense, and possession of a controlled substance. He entered an Alford plea, saying he did not admit to the charges as alleged, but acknowledged he could be convicted based on the evidence.
Superior Court Judge Bruce Weiss on Tuesday sentenced Ryle under the amended charges.
Ryle had a DUI from 2008 that could have added two more years of prison time. However, that conviction could not be taken into consideration under state sentencing guidelines because he was not found to be impaired in the 2017 crash.
The person Ryle killed was Greggory E. Solomon, 54. In a written statement presented to the court, Ryle called Solomon a friend, and said he was sorry for what happened.
On October 26, 2017, Ryle was driving a Ford Mustang eastbound on 20th Street SE, while a pickup truck was headed westbound at the same time. A witness said Ryle suddenly turned left onto 91st Avenue SE, colliding with the truck. The two vehicles slid sideways and crashed into a Ford Fusion stopped at the T-intersection.
Ryle and a passenger in the back seat of the Mustang were transported to Providence Regional Medical Center Everett. Solomon, who sat in the front passenger seat, died at the scene.
Those inside the truck and Ford Fusion were not seriously injured.
At the hospital, Ryle told an officer that the truck was going fast, and that the light had just turned yellow. Information downloaded from the truck’s Crash Data Retrieval System showed that it was going 39 mph in the seconds leading up to the crash. The speed limit on that stretch is 35 mph.
A Washington State Patrol trooper noted signs that Ryle may have been under the influence. Ryle had droopy, watery eyes and he was “fumbling restlessly” with his medical equipment, according to charging papers. He dozed off during a call with an attorney, and struggled to understand questions, prosecutors wrote.
After Ryle was booked into the Snohomish County Jail, he told a corrections officer that he had smoked methamphetamine just before the crash. The officer found two baggies with methamphetamine in Ryle’s jacket, and another with heroin.
Still, Darrow said it would have been challenging to prove that Ryle was impaired while driving. Failure to yield at a stop light is a fairly common cause of collisions, Darrow said, and there was no other evidence suggesting that Ryle was driving recklessly before the crash.
Furthermore, Darrow said, hospital records didn’t appear to back up the trooper’s observation that Ryle was impaired.
Legal arguments regarding methamphetamine use while driving made headlines in Snohomish County last summer, when a man was acquitted of two counts of vehicular homicide after a crash on I-5 that killed two girls.
In February 2017, Todd Eugene Brown was driving a Ford F-250 pickup northbound near Lynnwood when he rear-ended a Nissan Quest with enough force to crush the van’s back half. Amiyah Johnson, 12, died at the scene, and 2-year-old Yesterday Wallace died hours later at Harborview Medical Center.
Brown’s blood tested positive for methamphetamine, at the rate of 1 milligram per liter. But the mere presence of the drug in his blood wasn’t enough to prove he was impaired at the time of the collision, Judge Linda Krese said at the conclusion of the trial.
“The difficulty here is not that the state failed to present available evidence,” Krese said. “But the state of science with regard to the effects of methamphetamine is not such that clear conclusions can be drawn as to the effect of the drug on individual actions at particular times, particularly with regard to driving, without more evidence than is available in this case.”