History of Drug Recognition Experts
The term “drug recognition expert” was born in the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) in the 1970s. Los Angeles police struggled to find measures they could use to identify people who may be driving while under the influence of drugs, rather than alcohol. For years, police have used a combination of roadside tests along with a preliminary breath test to determine if a driver was under the influence of alcohol. However, the preliminary breath tests only detect alcohol. The hand-held preliminary breath testing device is not able to detect any of the large number of prescription, over-the-counter, or illegal drugs which may impact one's ability to drive safely.
Consequently, the LAPD started developing a series of screening steps that they believed would assist officers in determining whether someone was under the influence of drugs. In the early 1980s, experts at Johns Hopkins University, along with the Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) joined forces to evaluate the program. The study found the steps implemented by the Los Angeles Police Department were successful in identifying at least one drug, other than alcohol, in a person's system nine times out of ten. A subsequent evaluation of the program done in 1985 resulted in a slightly less successful result. In that study, the officers were only successful 8.7 times out of 10 in identifying a drug in a person's system.
In 1986, LA PD instituted a formal training program. In theory, this standardized training ensured that all officers understood and followed the same protocols. However, judgment is part of the evaluation process. In 1988, Congress passed legislation, which provided funding for formalized drug recognition expert (DRE) training in 33 states. At the present time, the International Association of Chiefs of Police offers training for those seeking to be declared “drug recognition experts.” The training is offered on a yearly basis.
Training for Drug Recognition Experts
DRE training includes prerequisites and three phases of training.
Prerequisites for DRE Training
Before one can begin DRE training, an officer must first complete another course. This course covers standardized field sobriety testing (SFST). The standardized field sobriety tests are used in cases where police suspect someone is under the influence of alcohol. They also play a small role in the process of evaluating whether someone is under the influence of some drug.
Phase One of DRE Training
Phase one involves a 16-hour class. This class provides an overview of the evaluation procedures used by drug recognition experts. It also reviews the seven categories of drugs which are being looked for in an evaluation. Eye examinations are also part of this two-day training. Finally, participants are evaluated in their ability to perform SFSTs properly.
Phase Two of DRE Training
In phase two, participants continue their study in the following topics:
- Drug evaluation procedures
- More information on each drug category
- Drug combinations
- Evaluating vital signs
- Preparing a case
- Courtroom testimony and
- The creation of a Curriculum Vitae (CV).
The training culminates in a written test.
Phase Three of DRE Training
Finally, officers must put their training to the test. To become certified, the officer must perform 12 drug evaluations while supervised by a trained DRE. Officers must identify at least three types of drugs from the seven drug categories. Additionally, officers must correctly identify the presence of a drug in three out of every four cases. The correctness of the identification is based on a subsequent taxological exam. This is followed by a final test. Once this is completed, two DRE instructors must “approve” the certification. It is not clear what the approval process looks like.
Understanding the DRE Program
The DRE process involves 12 separate steps. Many, if not most of these steps involve an evaluation by the officer. The steps include the following.
- Administration of a breath alcohol test. If the officer feels the level of impairment observed is not reflected by the breath alcohol test result, they will request a DRE evaluation.
- Interview. Upon arrival, the DRE starts their process by speaking with the very officer who made the request for a DRE. They ask the arresting officer what signs the officer saw that alerted them to the fact a driver may be impaired.
- Preliminary examination and pulse. After having been apprised about conduct to look for, the DRE conducts a preliminary evaluation. This evaluation includes a medical assessment, to determine if another reason may explain the strange behavior. There is a standard list of questions the DRE asks, regarding their health, the last time they ate, what they may have had to drink, and what drugs they may have taken, including prescription medication. The responses to these questions formulate the basis upon which the officer relies when assessing the presence of a medical condition.
- Eye examination.
- Divided attention psychophysical tests, also referred to as standardized tests or SFST.
- Vital signs and second pulse.
- Dark room examination.
- Examination of muscle tone.
- Examination of skin for possible injection sites and third pulse.
- Considering subject statements and other observations.
- Analyzing the data and forming an opinion about impairment.
- Taxological examination.
Problems with DREs
There are several problems with DREs. For example, rather than perform an independent evaluation of the situation, the DRE begins by talking with the officer who first called in the DRE. This officer no doubt has already made up his mind that the driver is impaired. Otherwise, they wouldn't have called in a DRE. The officer will provide information to support their position the driver is impaired and may disregard information inconsistent with that position.
Additionally, the DRE examines the driver to determine if a medical condition may be causing the strange behavior. A trained DRE is no substitute for a trained medical professional. Finally, there does not appear to be a recognition that false positives could occur when evaluating a driver to determine if they are influenced by drugs.
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