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January 26, 2008 - Dallas Morning News (TX)

DA Sees No Whiff Of Crime In Sniff Of Gel

Lewisville: Case Involved Middle-Schooler Who Smelled Teacher's Sanitizer

By Wendy Hundley, The Dallas Morning News

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Denton County prosecutors decided Friday to wash their hands of a case against a Lewisville middle school student accused of trying to get high by sniffing his teacher's hand sanitizer.

Three days after filing delinquency charges against the youth, prosecutors did a turnaround and decided that the common cleaning gel is not an abusive inhalant under the Texas Health and Safety Code.

"It's not a crime. Hand sanitizer does not fall within that statute," said Jamie Beck, first assistant district attorney in Denton County. "The police agency brought it up mistakenly thinking it was."

Richard Ortiz, the father of the seventh-grader, welcomed the news late Friday but expressed frustration that the case, which began in October, went as far as it did.

"I'm glad the DA's office decided they made a mistake, but they didn't decide that until after I hired a lawyer and the media got involved," said Mr. Ortiz.

Mr. Ortiz, who asked that his 14-year-old son's name not be published, said the boy was embarrassed and humiliated by the charge. He described his son as a well-behaved teenager who makes good grades.

"They were going to prosecute my son," Mr. Ortiz said. "He still has that stigma. People know him as a drug user, and he's not."

Mr. Ortiz's attorney, J. Michael Price II of Dallas, said he believes that the Denton County prosecutor's office acted quickly to drop the case once he brought the matter to the attention of Ms. Beck on Friday morning.

"I told her I didn't think a law had been violated," Mr. Price said. "She made the appropriate decision without a lot of delay."

Mr. Ortiz said the family's ordeal began Oct. 19, when his son picked up a bottle of hand sanitizer from the desk of his fifth-period reading teacher at Killian Middle School in Lewisville. He rubbed the gel on his hands and smelled it.

In the view of school officials, the boy "inhaled heavily," according to Mr. Ortiz, who said his son sniffed the cleanser "because it smelled good."

The youth was sent to the principal's office, and the Lewisville police officer assigned to the school began investigating.

"The event happened at the campus," said Dean Tackett, a spokesman for the Lewisville Independent School District. "But once the police took it over, it was a police investigation. They decide if there are charges and what kind of charges."

The teen was required to serve a brief in-school suspension and was also fingerprinted and photographed at the Lewisville Police Department. He returned to regular classes at the school, including one with the teacher whose sanitizer he sniffed.

Mr. Ortiz said he believed the matter was over until Tuesday when he was served with a petition charging his son with delinquency for inhaling the hand sanitizer to "induce a condition of intoxication, hallucination and elation."

He said he couldn't believe that his son would have to go to court for smelling hand sanitizer. "I think it's ludicrous," said Mr. Ortiz, who blames overzealous police and prosecutors for initially pursuing the case.

Joni Eddy, assistant police chief in Lewisville, said Friday that hand sanitizer has become a popular inhalant. "That is the latest thing to huff," she said.

She said officers felt they were acting properly when they pursued the case.

"The charge said he was using the product other than its intended use," she said. "Huffing hand sanitizer is certainly using it for something other than its intended use."

Hand sanitizers usually contain a high percentage of ethyl alcohol, a flammable liquid used in a wide range of industrial products and alcoholic beverages.

Shirley Simson, a spokeswoman for the National Institute on Drug Abuse in Washington, said in an e-mail that the agency had no data about hand sanitizers being abused as inhalants. She noted, however, that there have been news reports of some people drinking hand sanitizers for their alcohol content.

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