Overview of the Program
Alabama is one of 48 states and the District of Columbia to implement the Drug Evaluation and Classification Program (DECP). At the heart of this program is the Drug Recognition Expert (DRE). The DRE is a law enforcement officer trained in detecting and recognizing impairment caused by substances other than alcohol. This program will help the law enforcement officer better able to detect, apprehend, assess, document, and subsequently help the prosecutor prove, in court, the defendant was under the influence of a drug. The DRE program is not only an invaluable resource in prosecuting the drug impaired driver, but can also be utilized as a resource in any case in which some non-alcohol impairment is suspected such as domestic violence and homicide. There are also community outreach programs in place that utilize certified DREs such as Drug Impairment Training for the Educational Professional (DITEP) in which DREs go into school systems and teach educators observable signs and effects of drug impairment.
Alabama currently has 16 certified DREs with four of those being certified DRE instructors. There are currently 6500 certified DREs and 1500 DRE instructors in the United States.
The Los Angeles Police Department originated the program in the early 1970s when officers noticed that many of the individuals arrested for driving under the influence had very low or zero alcohol concentrations. The officers reasonably suspected that the arrestees were under the influence of drugs, but lacked the knowledge and skills to support their suspicions. In response, two LAPD sergeants collaborated with various medical doctors, research psychologists, and other medical professionals to develop a simple, standardized procedure for recognizing drug influence and impairment. Their efforts culminated in the development of a multi-step protocol and the first DRE program. The LAPD formally recognized the program in 1979.
In the early 1980s, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) took notice of the LAPD’s DRE program. The two agencies collaborated to develop a standardized DRE protocol which led to the DEC program. During the ensuing years, NHTSA and various other agencies and research groups examined the DEC program. Their studies demonstrated that a properly trained DRE can successfully identify drug impairment and accurately determine the category of drugs causing such impairment.
In 1984, NHTSA, in cooperation with the National Institute on Drug Abuse, evaluated the DRE procedures through a clinical study at Johns Hopkins University. This “Johns Hopkins Study” was the first significant study done to, in effect, test the validity of the DRE program by testing the accuracy of the DREs. The protocol saw each officer isolated and independently conduct an assessment of 80 volunteer drug users. In a double-blind format (neither the administrator of the drugs nor the recipient knew what was being administered), each of the volunteers received one of four different drug types or a placebo. Upon completing a 15 minute assessment, the officers were then asked to determine if the volunteer was impaired, and if so, the type of drug causing the impairment. The result was 90% accuracy in determining impairment and correctly identifying the type of drug causing the impairment.
A year after that clinical study, NHTSA conducted a field study of the LAPD DRE program (The 173 Case Study) in which NHTSA contracted with a private toxicology lab to conduct blood tests on samples obtained from the suspects. The results showed that of the 162 suspects arrested, the DRE was correct on 94% of the cases in determining impairment by a drug other than alcohol. In over 70% of those arrested, blood tests revealed detectable levels of more than one drug. The DRE was correct in determining ALL of the drugs present in 49% of the cases and identified at least one of the drugs present in 87% of the cases.
Each of those studies merely confirmed what the LAPD already knew. The DRE program works.
The DRE comes into a case at the request of the arresting officer. A typical scenario: An officer initiates a traffic stop and subsequently conducts a DUI investigation. The officer makes a determination that the driver is impaired; however, there is either no evidence of alcohol consumption or a subsequent breath test result is not consistent with the level of impairment. At this point, the officer would request a DRE evaluation. The job of the DRE at this point is to follow a 12 step systematic and standardized process (This 12 step process is utilized by all DREs, regardless of agency, and conducted in the same order on all suspects that begins with a breath alcohol test and an interview of the arresting officer regarding his on-scene observations and concludes with obtaining a sample of the defendant’s blood or urine for toxicology) in order to make three determinations. First, the individual’s impairment is not consistent with the BAC; second, the impairment is attributable to drugs and is not the result of a medical condition; third, identify the category or categories of drugs causing the impairment. It is important to note that the DRE will not identify the particular drug causing the effect as any number of drugs within a category could be responsible.
The DRE uses a drug classification system based on the premise that that each drug within a category produces similar signs and symptoms. It is a pattern of effects rather than a specific effect that is unique to the category. The primary drugs of abuse have been placed into seven categories which are: Central Nervous System (CNS) Depressants (e.g., alcohol, barbiturates, GHB, anti-anxiety tranquilizers such as Valium, Xanax, Prozac, etc…), CNS Stimulants (e.g., Cocaine, Crack, Amphetamines, Meth), Hallucinogens (e.g., LSD, Peyote, Ecstasy), Dissociative Anesthetics (e.g., PCP), Narcotics Analgesics (Opium, Codeine, Heroin, Demerol, Morphine, Methadone, Vicodin, OxyContin), Inhalants (e.g., rubber cement, glue, paint thinner), and Cannabis (e.g., THC, Dronabinol).
The reality is that without proper training and adequate resources available to the law enforcement officer patrolling the roadways of this state, convicting the drug impaired driver is infinitely more difficult than convicting the alcohol impaired driver. The presence of DREs in Alabama will be felt from the highway to the courtroom.