POLICE HAVE NEW TOOL TO DETERMINE IF A DRIVER IS USING DRUGS
When North Andover police caught up with an 18-year-old man who had stolen a BMW and broken into 25 cars in 90 minutes in March, they suspected alcohol wasn't the only thing he was on.
In Haverhill, police suspected the same thing early one morning last month when they spotted a car on the Basiliere Bridge facing north in the southbound lane with an incoherent 28-year-old woman at the wheel.
So did the Kingston, N.H., police officer who found a driver involved in a bad accident on Main Street last month standing in the street while a female passenger was trapped in her car.
In all three cases, trained drug recognition experts - DREs, to police - were called in to determine whether the drivers were on drugs. In all three cases, the answer was yes, and the drivers were charged with drugged driving.
Police have long used field sobriety and breath tests and their own observations to determine whether a driver is drunk. But until now drivers who seemed impaired but passed the breath test often had to be let go, even though police suspected they were high on drugs.
Police say the new technique closes a loophole that allowed drug-impaired drivers to get away with the crime. But defense lawyers question the science behind drug recognition and the potentially invasive nature of the tests DREs employ.
Salem, Kingston and Seabrook are among New Hampshire police departments with certified DREs.
In Massachusetts, Lawrence, North Andover, Haverhill, Rowley, Danvers, Marblehead and Wenham have their own drug detectors, and an Andover officer is completing training.
Acting Sgt. Chuck Gray, North Andover's drug recognition expert, evaluated the teen in the stolen BMW and concluded he was under the influence of cocaine, Klonopin and Liquid G, a "date-rape drug" that is also used to produce a high when taken in combination with other drugs. The teen was sent to jail.
Haverhill Officer Kevin Lynch, a DRE, determined the woman on the Basiliere Bridge was under the influence of stimulants, depressants and narcotic analgesics. She is awaiting trial.
So is the driver in the Kingston accident, who Officer Michael LePage, also a DRE, concluded was under the influence of alcohol and marijuana.
Working from a 12-point checklist, drug recognition experts perform eye tests, check pulse and blood pressure rates and look for other physical signs that an impaired driver may be under the influence of drugs in any of seven categories - depressants, stimulants, hallucinogens, phencyclidines like PCP or angel dust, narcotic analgesics, inhalants and cannabis..
They travel with a blood pressure cuff, thermometer, stethoscope, latex gloves and a specimen kit for collecting urine samples. They can be called upon to perform evaluations of people at car accident scenes or in the more controlled environment of a police station.
Gray said he has even gone to two homes after he was called by parents concerned that their children were on some kind of drug. His evaluation enabled the parents to seek help for their children.
North Andover police Chief Richard Stanley said the new technique is especially welcome at a time when police are seeing more drug-impaired drivers, especially among young people.
"The use of marijuana by young people is rampant and if they are driving a vehicle this is a tremendous tool to help stop them," he said.
"Over the last 30 years I have seen many cases where an individual was under the influence of narcotics and we had to let them go because there was no testing mechanism, or take out charges which we constantly lost in court."
Kingston police Chief Donald Briggs agreed.
"The DRE provides to arresting officers a lot of help in building and supporting their cases," he said.
Marblehead police Sgt. Donald Decker, a drug recognition instructor and Massachusetts statewide coordinator for the DRE program, said cities and towns with their own DREs make more drugged-driving arrests.
In 2005, the most recent year for which Decker has statistics, 684 people statewide were charged with driving under the influence of drugs.
"There were clearly more in 2006, and DREs are getting more requests from district attorneys to testify in such cases," Decker said. "There are more convictions and more people pleading now."
The penalties for drugged driving are the same as for drunken driving, Decker said.
In New Hampshire, DRE tests fall under the state's implied consent law for drivers.
Kingston's LePage said drivers may be required to submit to blood, urine and other physical tests or lose their license for 180 days.
In Massachusetts, the implied-consent law requires suspected drunken drivers to submit to breath tests or automatically lose their license. But drug recognition tests are not covered by the law
While no one can be forced to cooperate with the drug evaluation, most do for one of two reasons, Gray said.
"They know they need help and feel they are going to get it if they cooperate or they think they are going to beat the system," Gray said.
Marblehead's Decker is working to change the law so even the reluctant will be required to submit to drug testing.
He has met with Sen. Bruce Tarr of Gloucester, who said he favors legislation that would bring blood, urine and other physical tests under the implied consent law.
"I am convinced we need to modernize the law and close the gaps between the way we treat alcohol-impaired drivers and drug-impaired drivers," Tarr said. "We are in the formative stages of producing a comprehensive legislative package to bring ( the law ) into the modern era."
Steve O'Connell, spokesman for Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett, said the legislation could help prosecute drugged drivers using evidence gathered by DREs.
"There are legal challenges in Massachusetts in getting this evidence admitted," he said. "Should any legislation be introduced we would certainly be interested in reviewing it."
But Randy Chapman, a former prosecutor who now defends accused drunken drivers, said there are problems with the DRE program.
"Drug-impaired drivers are one of the more difficult to prosecute because most officers are incapable of identifying what substance the individual is impaired by," said Chapman, of Everett.
He said he also has strong reservations about police officers collecting biological samples.
"The breath test is simple. Officers can do that. Blood and urine samples are more intrusive and the collection aspect is fraught with problems," he said.
"There has to be a major legislative change and a re-interpretation of the Massachusetts constitution before the DRE program can be embedded in our courts," Chapman said.
Michael Coyne, a law professor at Massachusetts School of Law in Andover and a practicing defense lawyer, also has concerns about the DRE program.
"The courts have to carefully scrutinize whether it is science," Coyne said. "If it is science, it should act, walk and talk science. . We ought to take it slow and make sure the science is valid."
New to New England
Drug recognition techniques have been used by police on the West Coast since the mid-1970s but only as recently as the mid-1990s in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
"Everything takes awhile, especially in New England," said William Quigley, New Hampshire statewide coordinator for the DRE program and deputy police chief in Weare.
Marblehead's Decker said he and former Brewster police Officer Gary Coffey, now with the FBI, were the first in Massachusetts to be certified as DRE's.
The course involves 80 hours of classroom training and 12 field evaluations. The officers must get 75 percent of the evaluations correct to be certified.
"It was tougher than any college class I ever took," Lynch said.
There are now 47 DRE's certified in Massachusetts, six with state police.
In New Hampshire, there are 77 active DREs, said Quigley. Twenty-two are state troopers, and 55 are scattered among the state Department of Corrections and local police departments.
"I think it is phenomenal, but it is in its infancy here," said Haverhill's Lynch. "In other parts of the country, L.A. and Phoenix for example, the program is used every day."
12 STEPS TO IDENTIFYING A DRUGGED DRIVER
1. Breath or blood alcohol test. If test result is inconsistent with subject's level of impairment, a drug recognition expert is called.
2. DRE discusses circumstances of arrest with arresting officer.
3. Preliminary Subject is examined and pulse is taken.
4. Three eye movement tests are performed to check ability to track moving objects.
5. Subject is asked to perform several tests requiring balance, coordinated body movements and the ability to follow instructions.
6. Vital signs are taken, including blood pressure, temperature and pulse.
7. In a darkened room, the DRE uses a gauge to examine the pupils of the subject's eyes. This examination also includes a viewing of the nasal and oral cavities.
8. DRE checks muscle tone by moving subject's arms.
9. DRE checks for possible injection sites and takes another pulse.
10. DRE questions subject, asking about the use of specific drugs.
11. DRE forms an opinion on type of drugs the subject may be using and puts the opinion in writing.
12. DRE obtains a urine specimen and may arrange for a blood sample to corroborate the opinion. [/FONT]