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Drug Recognition Experts and Drugged Driving

If you are pulled over for suspicion of driving while impaired in the Charlotte area or North Carolina at large, the police officer can invite you to submit to any of the roadside sobriety tests such as the “walk and turn” test or “one-leg stand” test. Each of these tests is more subjective than the last, and it is within your rights to refuse to perform these tests, as many people, even those sober could have physical difficulties performing those tasks and still fail the test.

But what if the police officer suspects you of driving under the influence of a substance other than alcohol? The three tests mentioned above are primarily used to detect the presence of alcohol in a person’s system. In North Carolina, a charge of Driving While Impaired (DWI/DUI) can apply to drivers impaired not only by alcohol, but also by 1) “an impairing substance” or 2) any amount of a Schedule I drug listed in N.C.G.S. 90-89.

Drugged Driving: What Qualifies as "An Impairing Substance?"

A toxicity screen of a person’s blood detects the presence of a substance—it just isn’t very good at measuring whether there is a sufficient amount to cause impairment. Because Schedule I substances can be present in any amount at a relevant time after the driving, toxicity screens that register the presence of a Schedule I drug in the driver’s blood can be sufficient to prosecute that person for impaired driving.

However, there are many substances that can impair a potential driver’s mental or physical faculties that do not classify as Schedule I drugs. “Impairing substances” under North Carolina’s impaired driving statutes can include legally-prescribed medications such as Xanax or Valium, as well as lesser-classified illegal substances such as marijuana and cocaine.

Thus, for non-Schedule I “impairing substances,” the prosecution will often need the testimony of a drug recognition expert to prove impairment for the DWI charge. This means that if an officer suspects you of driving under the influence of an impairing substance besides alcohol, he or she can try to get you to submit to examination by a so-called drug recognition expert (DRE).

It is important to note that it is also within your rights to refuse this examination. Like the roadside sobriety tests designed to detect alcohol intoxication, the 12-step protocol that drug recognition experts perform is incredibly subjective and dismissed by many in the scientific community as “junk science.” Despite this, the North Carolina rules of evidence unfortunately classify DRE as an accepted forensic science.

What if I Already Submitted to a DRE?

If you already submitted to examination by a drug recognition expert and are being charged with impaired driving, it is critical to speak with a local and experienced DWI attorney as soon as possible. There are sometimes ways to exclude a DRE’s testimony from court once you opened the door by submitting to the test, but this can be difficult if not impossible. Contact Arnold & Smith, PLLC for an initial consultation with one of our DWI/DUI and criminal defense attorneys today.

Drug recognition experts are not as common as regular police officers; that is to say, the arresting officer is not usually qualified as a DRE, who will arrive on the scene afterwards. North Carolina, as of May 2016, had more than 180 DRE officers throughout the state, making it one of the leading states that trains officers to become DREs. There has been increased demand for the trainings as marijuana legalization in other states and prescription drug abuse have been on the rise.

What Does the DRE do?

Drug recognition experts are specially trained to administer chemical analyses and detect signs of impairment from different substances. DRE’s are trained in a 12-step protocol that is designed to determine whether a person is impaired, and the category of substance impairing them. They are trained to detect seven classes of drugs: Central nervous system (CNS) depressants and stimulants, narcotic analgesics, hallucinogens, dissociative anesthetics, cannabis and inhalants.

The 12-step protocol DREs are trained to administer for those suspected of drugged driving consists of the following:

  1. Administering a breath alcohol test
  2. Interviewing the arresting officer about any relevant evidence of drug use
  3. Determining whether the person has an injury or illness causing the drug symptoms, and whether the person needs immediate medical treatment
  4. Checking the person’s eye movement to determine what class of drugs has been used
  5. Determining if the person’s motor skills are impaired using the Finger to Nose test, One Leg Stand Test, the Walk and Turn test, and the Romberg balance test
  6. Measuring the individuals’ temperature, blood pressure and pulse
  7. Testing the constriction and dilation of the person’s pupils under three different lighting conditions and observing the nasal and oral cavities for evidence of drug use
  8. Examining the person’s skeletal muscle tone for evidence of muscle firmness or flaccidity
  9. Checking the person’s skin for injection marks
  10. Reading the person their Miranda rights and questioning them about his or her drug use
  11. Providing, based on the totality of the entire evaluation, an “expert” opinion of whether the subject is impaired and by what class of drugs they are impaired
  12. Finally, the DRE will usually request a toxicology report of the person’s saliva, urine or blood.

If you have been charged with impaired driving in the Charlotte area or surrounding counties, please contact Arnold & Smith, PLLC today for an initial consultation with one of our skilled DWI/DUI defense attorneys. We are an aggressive criminal defense and civil litigation firm in the heart of the Queen City. Our DWI and criminal defense attorneys defend the rights of our clients in courts across the Charlotte region on an almost daily basis and have many years of experience.