As instances of drugged driving continue to rise, two local members of law enforcement are taking their training to the next level in an effort to help crack down on the problem.
Deputy Mark White with the Coweta County Sheriff’s Office is now among only three law enforcement officers in Coweta County to have completed the Drug Recognition Expert program.
Along with Trooper Justin Hogan and Corporal Chris McEntire with the Georgia State Patrol, they are part of a cadre of only 275 law enforcement officers in the state of Georgia who have completed the course.
The DRE program is a 12-step process to determine whether or not a driver is impaired, if the impairment relates to drugs or a medical condition and what category or combination of categories of drugs are the likely cause of the impairment.
Investigator Nathan Mullennix with the Coweta County Solicitor's Office recently completed an Advanced Roadside Impaired Driving Enforcement course – a slightly less-intensive version of the DRE program.
“It’s a step to becoming ready for the DRE program,” Mullinex said. “It’s a big help for the county in identifying drug-impaired drivers.”
Both courses are conducted by the Georgia Police Academy Division of the Georgia Public Safety Training Center in Forsyth.
For Coweta County Solicitor General Sandy Wisenbaker, the completion of courses taken by White and Mullennix will help build stronger cases for prosecution. In 2016, her office reported a 2 percent increase in drug related DUIs, while 5 percent were a combination of drugs and alcohol.
In 2015, the office reported 12 percent of their DUIs were drug-related, while 9 percent were a combination of drugs and alcohol. Only 2 percent of those cases resulted in a not-guilty verdict or dismissal and more than half of those were drug DUI charges, according to Wisenbaker.
“In my time in solicitor's office, we have seen an increase in drug DUI cases from both legal and illegal substances,” she said. “It’s been on the rise for the last several years. While alcohol has historically been easy to smell and identify, drugs can be a little trickier.”
On the road, Hogan personally accounted for 127 DUI arrests over the last two years – 44 of them were drug-related. He’s also an instructor for the DRE course in Forsyth. In his encounters with drivers under the influence of drugs, Hogan said the most common argument is “my doctor prescribed it.”
“Those prescribed drugs can impair a driver as much as alcohol, even more sometimes,” Hogan said. “Some may have just one beer, but if they’re taking certain medications, it greatly intensifies the effects of the drug."
Prescription medications such as Xanax, Klonopin, Prozac and Flexeril are some of the most common, according to Hogan.
When a driver suspected of being under the influence of drugs is pulled over, an officer will conduct a standard field sobriety test to determine the level of impairment. However, many hit a wall when it’s determined that something is definitely wrong, but the driver isn’t under the influence of alcohol.
If alcohol or sleepiness is ruled out, a deputy will dispatch someone with DRE experience to evaluate the driver. The evaluation takes approximately one hour to complete. The administrator of the test will carefully measure and record vital signs, making precise observations of the person’s automatic responses and reactions.
The evaluator also administers carefully designed psychophysical tests to evaluate the person’s judgment, information processing ability, coordination and various other characteristics. By doing this, the officer can systematically consider everything about the person that could indicate the influence of drugs.
While a breathalyzer can accurately determine the level of intoxication for someone under the influence of alcohol, testing for drugs is a little more intricate. By being able to narrow down the possibilities, officers can search for a specific substance.
“We’re able to determine if a person is under the influence of a depressant, a stimulant or THC,” Hogan said.
After a blood draw, the sample is sent to the GBI crime lab for testing. Typically, the results have a one- to three-month turnaround, according to Hogan.
Captain Mark Fenninger has been with the sheriff’s office for almost 30 years and knows the difficulties in prosecuting DUI cases in court. When a driver is clearly impaired, but the presence of alcohol doesn’t seem to be present, it can pose a challenge for the officer.
“DUIs are one of the hardest cases to make, and they’re the one you always have to go to court for,” he said. “Many deputies aren’t comfortable because of their level of experience. With someone who has completed the drug recognition expert program, it helps determine exactly what the issue is with a driver.”
Any driver can refuse a DRE evaluation. Unlike alcohol, where you lose your license automatically for refusing a breathalyzer test, there is currently no penalty for refusing a drug evaluation.
Jason Swindle is a criminal-defense attorney and college professor in Carrollton. With more than a decade of experience with DUI law, he believes the presence of a DRE in court can have a significant impact on a jury trial and even a judge.
"In general, any witness who is deemed by the court as an expert is given at least a slightly elevated credibility rating by a jury, and experts help the prosecution educate jurors about the evidence that each side wants them to consider.” he said.
“For example, DREs can talk about field sobriety testing and the studies that have been done to correlate the results of field sobriety tests to proof of impairment.”
Additionally, experts can testify about the effects that certain drugs have on the human body and how that affects the ability to drive safely.
DREs can also affect rulings made by the judge, Swindle said. Georgia appellate courts have upheld trial court rulings on traffic stops when a DRE is on the scene by noting the DRE’s status and paying particular attention to his or her observations and role in the investigation during the traffic stop.
According to Swindle, the effect of testimony from a DRE who is a law enforcement officer varies based on the makeup of the jury, the county where the case is being prosecuted, the preparedness and level of knowledge of the expert, the preparedness of the lawyers and whether there is a defense DRE whose testimony challenges the testimony of the DRE officer.
The defense DRE is normally a former law enforcement officer, and when two DREs testify, it is commonly called "the battle of the experts," Swindle said.
“So, a DRE can, and often does, have a significant impact on a jury trial and even a judge,” Swindle said. “As with all witnesses, the level of impact depends on a number of variables."
For Deputy White, he hopes more members of law enforcement will take up the challenge of completing the intensive course.
“I hope they will be inspired by this,” he said.
Clay Neely: firstname.lastname@example.org, @clayneely