Drug Recognition Experts are key to reduce drugged driving.
Law-enforcement personnel have plenty of barriers when it comes to reducing drugged driving. However, one nationwide program supported by AAA is increasingly becoming an effective tool in the fight.
A growing number of officers are becoming Drug Recognition Experts, or DREs, part of the Drug Evaluation and Classification program run by the International Association of Chiefs of Police with support from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. A wide range exists in how intensely states are involved. As of June 2014, California led with 1,215 DREs, followed by Texas (417), Arizona (370) and New Jersey (349). At the lower end: Delaware with one and Virginia with two.
Beginning in 2013, AAA worked on a range of efforts across the U.S. to better leverage the DEC program to curb drugged driving.
“The association considers the DEC program to be our best frontline defense against drugged driving as of today,” said AAA Traffic Safety Advocacy & Research Director Jake Nelson. “AAA has been working with states to uncover barriers to growth of the program locally.”
Making a difference
Since Minnesota’s DRE program started in 1991, arrests solely for drugged driving have grown steadily, increasing “from 5 or 6 per year to 1,100,” said Minnesota State Patrol Lt. Don Marose, the state’s Standardized Field Sobriety Testing/DRE coordinator. Minnesota has 184 DREs with representation from 93 law-enforcement agencies.
“We are gaining about 15 DREs per year,” Marose said. “The upswing in drugged-driving arrests is partially because of DREs and partially because of better training for road officers. I think we’ve gained a lot of traction.”
An arresting officer who performs a field sobriety test and suspects that a driver’s level of impairment is not consistent with the breathalyzer results would call a DRE to perform a 12-step evaluation process that includes eye examinations, readings of vital signs, measuring pupil sizes under different lighting conditions, looking for injection sites, and requesting urine, blood, or saliva samples. Occasionally, DRE evaluations are conducted at the roadside, but typically they are completed post-arrest.
Officer Bryan Duncan, a DRE instructor for California’s Glendale Police Department, received the state’s Traffic Safety Excellence Award in 2012 and has been honored for his high number of DUI arrests. He also was instrumental in forming Glendale’s DUI task force that focuses heavily on drugged driving.
“Stats clearly show that alcohol-involved traffic fatalities have hit a plateau,” Duncan said. “In one sense, that’s good. However, far too many people die of alcohol-related collisions each year. My own personal view is that drugged driving will surpass alcohol-related driving within the next year, if it hasn’t already.”
DRE training includes two weeks of classroom training, followed by 40 hours of field testing with DRE instructors present. A comprehensive test must then be passed for certification.
DREs are important not only in bringing charges after a drugged-driving arrest, but also in the prosecution phase, where their expertise and testimony can often convince prosecutors, juries and judges of a motorist’s impairment.
“Defense attorneys know the courts and prosecutors are not trained very well in drugged driving cases,” Duncan said. “It’s very difficult to overturn a .08 percent blood alcohol test because the general public has been educated and accepts that level as being impaired. Drug cases are harder to prosecute, because the public doesn’t know what some of these drugs are or the adverse effects they have on the human body and mind. Defense attorneys exploit this and know they only need to put doubt in one juror’s mind.”
In California, where cannabis is legal for medical reasons and penalties were weakened in 2011 for anyone possessing less than 1 ounce of the drug, Duncan has seen a substantial increase in DUI-related collisions involving cannabis. Since 2012, he said, about half of all DUI arrests he has made have been related to marijuana.
“The potency of cannabis in 2015 is dramatically higher today vs. the 1970s,” Duncan said. “This is not your parents’ weed.”
Marose said even though drugged driving arrests have increased, the numbers remain grossly underreported.
“Many times, resources aren’t used to test for other substances if a driver is found to have a .08 percent or higher blood alcohol concentration. I had our lab go back and test about 260 samples that were .08 or higher to see what else was there, and 45 percent had another substance in them. It’s a much larger problem than people think,” he said.
Other law enforcement obstacles include the lack of a reliable roadside drug test, especially for marijuana, and the absence of a zero-tolerance approach to drugged driving in many states.
“It’s difficult to get a clear, concise law that can address thousands of substances that impair the ability to drive,” Marose said. “It’s tough to do the things we do. There are still a ton of gray areas.”
Kevin Adams is a freelance writer based in Orlando, Fla., and writes for multiple AAA publications.
May/June 2015 Issue
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