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Drug Recognition Experts

The theory of the DRE program, and the claim of the DRE officer is that they are able to determine whether someone is under the influence of drugs through a visual evaluation. Typically, a DRE is called in to assist an arresting officer to further evaluate a suspect arrested for drunk driving but who has passed a breath test.

According to law enforcement, the DRE's testimony may provide better evidence for the prosecution than toxicology reports. The argument is that blood tests may not measure the quantity of drugs taken and, even if they do, may not show a level high enough to prove impairment. Urine tests do not accurately pinpoint when the drugs were ingested and may not show the quantity. Therefore blood and urine tests alone may not be sufficient to prove the person was affected by drugs when they were

How a Drug Recognition Expert is Selected

DREs are usually experienced officers with a proven expertise in DWI detection and standardized field sobriety testing. A DRE candidate is typically nominated by a superior/commanding officer. Depending on the individual department's policy, a candidate may be asked to submit a written application or to appear for an oral interview. Successful candidates will have a demonstrated proficiency in criminal investigations and court room testimony.

In order to become a DRE, the officer must attend a two day DRE Pre-school, and then attend an intense seven-day DRE school. The officer then must complete twelve evaluations where he/she successfully determines three of the seven recognized drug categories. Then the officer must pass a final exam.

The DRE program has evolved the drug identification into a three-step process. The first step is to establish that the impairment is due to something other than alcohol. Second, to determine if impairment is due to a medical reason or injury. Third, to determine what category, or categories, of drugs is causing the impairment.

According to Tom Page, a retired Los Angeles DRE, in 1986, in recognition of the need to develop a formal curriculum, eighteen senior LAPD DREs were selected to develop and present the DRE curriculum.[i] A DRE school was conducted in May of 1986 in Los Angeles utilizing this initial cadre of instructors. NHTSA and other agencies monitored this school, with the goals of standardizing the curriculum, and developing a comprehensive curricula package for administrators, instructors, and students.[ii] In 1987, NHTSA completed the development of these lesson plans. NHTSA also conducted an instructor development school in Los Angeles to prepare DREs to present the curriculum. A successful DRE school was then held in Los Angeles using this new standardized curriculum.

In the late 1980s, it was becoming clear to U.S. law enforcement and traffic safety officials that the DRE Program was poised for tremendous growth. Undoubtedly, for the DRE Program to expand, it needed administrative support and oversight on a national level. The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) had for years maintained an ongoing relationship with NHTSA. The IACP supported NHTSA training programs for police officers, and advised NHTSA on research needs in traffic enforcement. The IACP was the logical organization to assume the oversight and administration of the growing DRE Program. In 1989, the IACP assumed this oversight, and became the regulating body for Drug Recognition Experts.

In 1988, the United States Congress passed the Omnibus Drug Bill. This legislation funded a large-scale expansion of DRE training. Due in large measure to this bill, law enforcement agencies in 34 states have adopted the DRE program. As of 2002, there are approximately 5,400 certified DREs nationwide, including nearly 900 DRE instructors. In addition, DREs now serve in Canada, Australia, Sweden, and Norway. South Africa, through the auspices of its Council on Scientific and Industrial Research, may adopt the DRE Program in the near future.

DRE training and certification records are now maintained by the IACP.[iii] NHTSA has maintained its role in the DRE Program by sponsoring curriculum update conferences, coordinating DRE courses nationwide, developing and issuing training materials, and generally providing administrative support of the DRE Program. The DRE Program is now formally titled the Drug Evaluation and Classification Program (DECP).

Drug Categories and Categorization

In the early 1980's the LAPD (Los Angeles Police Department) identified a need to more thoroughly evaluate those drivers who exhibited signed of impairment but who tested negative or below the legal limit for the presence or amount of alcohol. Releasing such persons with the admonishment not to drive was not a good option. Consequently, officers of the LAPD pioneered the development a new type of "field evaluation" of the driver, which culminated in the development of the DRE program's seven drug categorizes. These categories were in turn based on information gleaned from various fields of medicine including psychiatry, physiology, toxicology, and other associated fields. In developing these categories, these officers claim that they did not invent new knowledge about the effects of the drugs, but instead collated information for a variety of sources.

This drug categorization system was developed in part in such a way as to make categorization conducive to the officer's field investigation, and was based not on shared chemical structures or on the user's subjective experience, but instead on a shared pattern of physical manifestations or effects. These effects are called "signs and symptoms", and form the source material of the DRE identification program. The seven categories are: (1) CNS Depressants; (2) CNS Stimulants; (3) Hallucinogens; (4) PCPs; (5) Narcotic Analgesics; (6) Inhalants; (7) Cannabis. [see Appendix A].

Drug Recognition Process

In part because of cost to the department in training a DRE another officer will usually make the initial stop. After concluding that the driver is not under the influence of alcohol, but still with the belief that the driver is impaired, the officer making the stop will call in a DRE to continue the investigation. In fact, some departments in the United States, such as the LAPD, require a DRE evaluation when alcohol is ruled out but impairment is still suspected.

During their investigation, the DRE will be called upon to make three determinations, (1) that there is impairment, and that the impairment is due to something other than alcohol; (2) That the impairment is due to drugs rather than a medical condition, and; (3) What specific category of drugs is responsible for the driver impairment. This investigation is performed in twelve steps.

It is important to note that the entire process is systematic and highly standardized, and that the evaluation must be completed according to this standardized protocol using all twelve steps. The DRE should not reach his/her opinion until the entire evaluation is complete. The twelve steps are:

  • Step One: Breath Test
  • Step Two: Interview of Arresting Officer
  • Step Three: Preliminary Examination (includes the first of three pulses)
  • Step Four: Examination of the Eyes
  • Step Five: Divided Attention Psycho physical Tests (includes the three SFSTs and others)
  • Step Six: Vital Signs Examination (including a second pulse)
  • Step Seven: Dark Room Examinations (includes examinations of eyes, nose and mouth).
  • Step Eight: Examination for Muscle Tone
  • Step Nine: Examination for Injection Site(s) (third pulse is taken)
  • Step Ten: Suspect's Statements and Other Observations
  • Step Eleven: Opinions of the Evaluator
  • Step Twelve: Toxicology Examination
Presenting Testimony

Because only experienced offices are selected for the program, a great deal of time is not spent training the DRE in how to testify. It is assumed that they already know how to do this, and in fact, only officers that have demonstrated an ability to provide clear and convincing court room testimony are selected. However, there is a section in the course dealing with "case preparation and testimony". During this part of the officer's training information is imparted relative to both direct as well as cross-examination.

Significantly, when testifying about the SFSTs, the DREs are specifically trained NOT to use the terms "pass" or "fail" or to refer to the suspect's "score" or the number of points produced. DRE's are trained to present their testimony clearly and convincingly so that the suspect's impairment "speaks for itself". DRE's are also trained to keep in mind that an officer's demeanor is as much or more important than the content of their testimony. The 1999 manual also describes how to answer certain questions (providing sample answers) and also indicates specifically "[b]e polite and courteous. Do not become agitated as a result of questions by the defense. Above all, if you don't know the answer to a question, say so. Don't guess at answers or compromise your honesty in any way".

Because the DRE is essentially acting as and is offering expert testimony, they are also trained on resume preparation and maintenance. They are further trained that the principal purpose of the resume is to help establish their qualifications for testifying in court as a DRE.

During their training, the DRE is admonished that because they are "key" witnesses for the prosecution, the defense will "try very hard to cast doubt on your testimony". The manual indicates that when the DRE is confronted with a defense challenge to other possible explanations for what was observed, they are to respond by making it clear that their conclusions about drug influence "are not simply one plausible interpretation of the observed facts, but the only logical interpretation".

[i] The following Los Angeles Police Department officers were responsible for the development and presentation of the DRE curriculum: Patricia (Russell) Berry, James Brown, Milt Dodge, Ian Hall, Arthur Haversat, Clark John, Baron Laetzsch, Gary Lynch, Ron Moen, Michael Murray, Thomas Page, Craig Peters, Jerry Powell, Scott Sherman, Richard Studdard, Larry Voelker, Michael Widder, and Nicholas Zingo.

[ii] John "Jack" Oates, William Nash, and Bill Tower (on loan to NHTSA from the Maryland State Police), represented NHTSA at this course.

[iii] The IACP also supports a DRE Section, which serves as a resource and responds to the needs of DREs, program coordinators, and other traffic safety professionals. For information on membership requirements, the reader should contact the IACP at 1-800-THEIACP.

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