Clovis News

Police experts on impaired drivers controversial

Police officers often catch drivers driving erratically but find a breathalyzer test shows that they have not been drinking. Drugs may be involved -- but how to confirm that suspicion quickly?

Enter the Drug Recognition Experts -- police officers specially trained to evaluate drivers who may be under the influence of methamphetamine, marijuana and other drugs, both legal and illegal, that may impair driving.

At the scene, in a hospital or at a police station, DRE officers evaluate suspected impaired drivers who pass alcohol sobriety tests through interviews, balance tests and analysis of vital signs such as pulse, blood pressure and pupil dilation.

Police say the officers, who also perform normal police duties, are key to getting drug-impaired drivers off the streets immediately, without waiting for toxicology test results.

But because DRE officers must use observations and indirect evidence to support their conclusions about drug use instead of instant test results that are available for alcohol use, their use has drawn criticism from some defense attorneys. Fresno defense attorney Eric Schweitzer, for example, calls the DRE program "pseudoscience."

"You have cops in lab coats masquerading as scientists," he said.

Schweitzer cited a 2009 California Court of Appeals ruling that threw out the conviction of a man charged with driving under the influence of methamphetamine because there was insufficient evidence that he was driving unsafely.

DRE officers had noted that he had stopped past the limit line at an intersection and showed telltale signs of fidgety behavior, sweating and a rapid pulse. Even though there also was evidence of the drug in his system, the court found that was not sufficient evidence he was impaired.

Capt. Andy Hall, who heads the Fresno Police Department's traffic unit, agrees that DRE officers are not scientists. But he maintains the training they receive at the California Highway Patrol Academy enables them to recognize the symptoms displayed by a drug-impaired driver.

The department's 20 DRE officers, like others certified in the state, undergo two weeks of classes at the CHP Academy and about another week of field training where they learn to spot the symptoms of drug-impaired drivers. Officers also must regularly update their training to stay certified.

Other Valley cities, including Clovis and Visalia, have trained DRE officers while some law enforcement agencies depend on CHP officers.

The first DRE programs were started in the 1970s by the Los Angeles Police Department to train officers in a standardized 12-step evaluation to help determine whether a driver is under the influence of drugs, determine the type of drug and rule out medical conditions that might be the cause of the impairment.

The LAPD touts two studies -- one in 1984 by Johns Hopkins University and one in 1985 by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration -- as proof of the program's value: Both found DREs could successfully distinguish between those drivers impaired by drugs and those who were not.

Further evidence: The Los Angeles City Attorney's Office estimates that 95% of those charged with driving under the influence of drugs in Los Angeles are convicted.

Schweitzer, however, said DRE programs are flawed because police are not in a position to determine what level of a drug makes a driver impaired. He cited marijuana, which he said does not metabolize in the body at a constant rate.

Some defense lawyers also point out that the symptoms of impairment can be mimicked by natural causes, including fatigue, allergies, sickness and nerves.

But another Fresno defense attorney, Ron Sawl, believes "there is a validity to the process. The training they go through is good science.

"I see Eric's point, but I wouldn't go as far as he does in calling it pseudoscience."

He said a DRE officer's evaluation that someone is under the influence of a certain substance is much like similar determinations made by health professionals such as emergency medical technicians, who often are called upon to evaluate patients who may be under the influence.

Hall, the Fresno police captain, said DUI convictions involving drugs are more difficult than those involving alcohol. "The burden of proof is much higher," he said.

On Hall's desk is a file of DUI cases that were returned to police from the District Attorney's Office "NCF" -- no charges filed. The issue is apparent at the department's frequent sobriety checkpoints, Hall said, because unless an officer observes a pattern of erratic driving, it can be difficult to prove the driver is impaired by drugs.

The December arrest of Fresno County sheriff's deputy Brian Hillis on DUI charges, after DRE-trained Fresno police officers determined that he was impaired by several legal drugs, highlights the program.

Hillis' patrol car had struck a median and blew a tire at Highway 41 and Bullard Avenue after 911 calls from several motorists reported that a sheriff's car was being driven erratically. Fresno police DRE officers were called in after Hillis was pulled over by CHP Central Division Chief Jim Abrames, who later told investigators that Hillis "seemed somewhat disoriented" because he did not understand why he was pulled over.

Hillis, who told police he was simply speeding and lost control, was arrested and taken by ambulance to Community Regional Medical Center. Fresno police said Hillis passed the breath-analyzer test with no alcohol in his system.

The DRE officers' report illustrates their process:

After being asked what he had eaten and drank that morning, Hillis told the officers he had coffee and corn chips. He was asked whether he was sick or injured, whether he was a diabetic or epileptic, or whether he had any head injuries. Hillis said no, but that he was under the care of a doctor. His pulse varied from 110 to 122 -- faster than normal -- and his blood pressure was 146 over 80 -- higher than normal. The officers noted that his muscle tone was rigid and that his eyes were not able to track moving objects smoothly; they also were slow to react to light. Hillis said he had taken the drugs Klonopin and Benadryl. He said he had taken Benadryl for his allergies and Klonopin to help his sleep. He also said he didn't remember much of his drive home.

The officers concluded that he was under the influence of a central nervous system depressant and a central nervous system stimulant and was unable to operate a motor vehicle safely.

Hillis has not yet been charged by the Fresno County District Attorney's Office.

DRE officers also can help prove the innocence of drivers, Hall said.

Several years ago, officers pulled over a farmworker who appeared drunk and could not pass a field sobriety test. The man was arrested and his car towed.

Toxicity tests later determined that the man was completely sober -- he had simply worked too many hours without sleep. The department freed him and paid to have his car towed back to his house.

Hall said that a DRE officer would probably have been able to determine the man was not under the influence at the scene and saved him from the arrest.

Hall said he believes DRE officers will play an increasingly important role if marijuana becomes legal. About a quarter of the state's fatal DUI crashes in 2008 didn't involve alcohol.

"It's a gray area for law enforcement," he said. "As we move forward with softening [laws] or possibly legalizing marijuana, we have a whole bigger issue coming."