Ohio police trained to ID drivers’ drug impairment

Published 9:47 am Tuesday, May 28, 2013

COLUMBUS (AP) — A program that trains law enforcement officers in Ohio to recognize whether drivers are impaired from drugs is drawing praise from prosecutors and law-enforcement officials, while criminal defense attorneys say such assessments are scientifically inaccurate.

Authorities say 71 law-enforcement officers statewide have completed the training in drug-recognition since 2010, The Columbus Dispatch reports. Ohio was the 48th state to add the training that goes beyond sobriety tests to teach officers to be certified drug-recognition experts. They are trained to determine whether someone is impaired from drugs or a medical condition.

Last year, experts performed 480 of the evaluations after stops on Ohio roads.

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A drug-recognition expert’s assessment at a police station includes conducting an interview, taking vital signs, measuring pupil size in a dark room, checking muscle tone and obtaining blood and urine samples. Symptoms and clues associated with drug impairment can differ from those with drinking. While a drunken driver might slur his words and have slow reactions, a drug-impaired person might appear jittery.

The State Highway Patrol’s Sgt. Wes Stought, who coordinates the training, says a drug recognition expert’s opinion can be better than a urine or blood test because the expert can tell what is happening with an impaired person at that moment. Drug-recognition experts have an 86 percent accuracy rate when their assessments are compared to the results of blood and urine tests, Stought said.

But Tim Huey, immediate past president of the Ohio Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, says “it’s made-up stuff.”

“It sounds scientific because it has these underlying medical processes to it, but no medical doctor would stand up for it,” Huey said.

The lawyers association’s annual DUI seminar this spring focused on drug recognition, and Huey said he wants defense lawyers specializing in impaired-driver cases to avoid establishing a legal precedent.

“Unless you do a good job of showing that it’s hocus pocus, then it could end up being accepted when it’s not scientifically accurate,” Huey said.

Assistant Franklin County Prosecutor Keith McGrath was on the task force that studied drug recognition before the program started in Ohio. Experts’ opinions can help bolster cases against drivers, such as a recent one involving a Columbus man, McGrath said.

“The drug-recognition expert’s report and his actions that day helped me as a prosecutor get evidence I otherwise would not have had,” McGrath said.

He said that evidence may have encouraged the man to plead guilty after running a red light and striking and killing a 5-year-old boy.

A drug-recognition expert determined the man had been prescribed five psychiatric medications to treat a brain injury and was impaired by those legal drugs while driving, the newspaper reported. The driver was later sentenced to three years in prison.

Courts decide an expert’s reliability, and the only officer accepted as an expert so far was a Cincinnati police officer in October, the newspaper reported.

Stought said it’s also important that officers know when to call in a drug-recognition expert and that it’s still a “learning experience for the whole state.”