When a car swerves off the road but a Breathalyzer shows the driver has no alcohol in their bloodstream, police have to determine if the person is under the influence of something else and what is causing the impairment.
To answer these questions, most agencies have trained drug recognition experts, officers who use a 12-step protocol at a hospital or police station to recognize when someone is impaired by a substance other than alcohol.
Sgt. Josh Roberts, one of two such experts for the Umatilla County Sheriff’s Office, said officers have to go through a lengthy training program to become certified.
After applying to the position, candidates spend a few days dedicated to basics.
“We make sure the candidates can appropriately do and interpret field sobriety tests,” Roberts said.
Through a two-week course, candidates review how drugs affect a person’s brain and body and study the specific effects of seven categories of drugs. Those include cannabis, prescription drugs, methamphetamines and cocaine.
The candidates also have to study a matrix that details symptoms and identifiers for the different drug categories. At the end of the class, they take an exam, which includes recreating the matrix from memory.
The matrix will allow them to eliminate certain substances based on behaviors symptomatic of a certain drug.
Officers search for horizontal gaze nystagmus (HGN), an involuntary jerking of the eyes.
“If I don’t see HGN, I can rule out CNS depressants, inhalants, and dissociative anesthetics,” Roberts said. “If we see HGN, we look at those three categories as contenders for impairment.”
Once they’ve completed the course, Roberts said students have a field certification training in Portland where they work on identifying people who are impaired.
Often times, Roberts said, the people that volunteer are homeless.
“We give them a sandwich and a soda,” Roberts said. “We’re not threatening anyone with jail, they’re total volunteers.”
He said while they occasionally find people in possession of drugs during the exercises, they typically focus on the task at hand.
“We always use officer discretion,” he said. “If we find a residual amount, now under the new law it’s a misdemeanor. Often, we’ll just give them a warning.”
Roberts added that the field exercises are easier to conduct in Oregon, because there is no law against the consumption of drugs — only against possession.
“If you’ve ingested it, it’s not technically a crime,” he said. “That gives us the freedom to walk around and ask people to volunteer.”
“The volunteers we get are really vital to the process,” he said. “It would be really difficult to hold field certification otherwise.”
The final step of training is to confirm students’ evaluations with toxicology tests.
“Each student has to have at least 80 percent of the evaluations confirmed, that what they called is actually confirmed in the toxicology test,” Roberts said.
The drug expert program has been around since the 1990s, according to Hermiston Police Chief Jason Edmiston.
Roberts said over time, the drug recognition experts learn to look for signs that a person may have used multiple drugs, or if a person has been using drugs that may have quickly left their system.
“You see a change in how the body reacts over time,” he said. “Some drugs are really fast-acting, like inhalants. We look at things like pulse rate, how eyes are moving. If there’s involuntary jerking of the eyes, we put them through the same field sobriety tests.”
Other tests include whether a person can divide their attention, and the degree to which a person’s eyes are dilated. They will also check the person’s vital signs, and examine their muscle tone and skin for signs of injection marks.
Eynon pointed out that getting further testing from a DRE is voluntary for someone who has been pulled over, but there is some incentive to agree to further tests. If an officer has reason to believe a person is impaired, they will still be required to submit a urine sample.
Edmiston said police spend an inordinate energy on DUIs.
“There’s often more time and resources dedicated to one DUI investigation and arrests than for many felony crimes and arrests,” he said.
He said while the drug expert positions are helpful in identifying impairment, they still pull officers from their duties.
He said in the past several years, all Class A misdemeanors, including DUIs, have gone to the courts, which means pulling officers off their beats and paying for medical analysis. And he is not aware of a Breathalyzer equivalent for other drugs.
Contact Jayati Ramakrishnan at 541-564-4534 or firstname.lastname@example.org