“Drugged Driving” and DWI Drug Recognition Experts in North Carolina

In North Carolina, you can be charged with Driving While Impaired even if you are impaired by a drug other than alcohol. While most people think of a DWI as a charge of "drinking and driving," it is much broader than that. If a person takes a Schedule I drug as defined in North Carolina General Statute 90-89, and operates a motor vehicle, he or she may be charged with Driving While Impaired. Unlike alcohol impairment, there are no "breathalyzer" tests for impairment from other drugs. Instead, police often rely on the investigation of a Drug Recognition Expert (DRE). A DRE undergoes extensive training into the physiology of drug impairment.

The DRE program got its start in the 1970s, when members of the Los Angeles Police Department realized that there was a gap in their training. Officers would detain people who were operating vehicles and who were obviously impaired, but who gave negative results on tests for blood alcohol concentration. Clearly, these individuals were under the influence of some drug, but the officers could not testify as to the type of drug. Realizing the problem with this gap in knowledge, the police, along with medical experts, developed a program of training to address this issue. The federal government, through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, adopted this program and improved it. The program has developed over the past several decades. The program is used in North Carolina and the 49 other states, as well as in Canada and several other countries.

If a person has been charged with so-called "drugged driving," he or she was probably examined by a Drug Recognition Expert. This examination consists of a 12-step process. The steps are outlined below:

Step 1: Breath Alcohol Test
The person's breath is tested for the presence of, and concentration of, alcohol.

Step 2: Interview of the Arresting Officer
The Drug Recognition Expert interviews the arresting officer about the existence of relevant evidence of drug use.

Step 3: Preliminary Examination and First Pulse
The DRE determines whether the subject has an injury or illness that is causing the drug symptoms. Further, the DRE determines if the person needs immediate medical treatment.

Step 4: Eye Examination
The DRE checks the subject's eyes for Vertical Gaze Nystagmus (VGN) and/or Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN). The DRE also tests for ocular convergence. Results from these tests can help the expert determine the class of drugs that may have been used.

Step 5: Divided Attention Psychophysical Tests
The expert determines if the subject's motor skills are impaired using four tests: the Romberg balance test, the Walk and Turn test, Finger to Nose test, and one Leg Stand test.

Step 6: Vital Signs and Second Pulse
Blood pressure, temperature, and pulse are measured. This is useful to the DRE, because certain vital signs are affected by certain drugs.

Step 7: Dark Room Examinations
The dilation and constriction of the subject's pupils are tested under 3 different lighting conditions. The DRE also observes the oral and nasal cavities for evidence of drug use.

Step 8: Examination for Muscle Tone
The DRE checks the person' skeletal muscle tone, because certain drugs can effect the firmness or flaccidity of muscle tissue.

Step 9: Check for Injection Sites and Third Pulse
The subject's skin is inspected to determine if there are injection marks where drugs were injected into the body. The pulse is taken for the third time.

Step 10: Subjects Statements and Other Observations
The subject is read Miranda rights and questioned about his or her drug use.

Step 11: Analysis and Opinions of the Evaluator
Based on the totality of the evaluation, the DRE determines whether the subject is impaired, and, if so, what class of drugs the subject is impaired by.

Step 12: Toxicological Examination
Typically the DRE will request a toxicology report on the person's blood, urine, or saliva.

Drug Recognition Experts are not that common, because it is a certification that is quite difficult to get. It takes numerous of hours of training. The material is quite complex. The DREs are trained to recognize seven classes of drugs, including Central Nervous System depressants, Central Nervous System stimulants, hallucinogens, narcotic analgesics, dissociative anesthetics, inhalants, and cannabis. Even an expert can have trouble determining what class of drugs a person has used.

As you can see, determining whether a person is impaired by drugs is a complicated matter. If you have been charged with "drugged driving," you need an experienced attorney who can help you fight your charge. A lawyer who understands the medical and physiological aspects of drug testing can determine if the tests were administered appropriately. If it can be shown that the tests were not carried out according to the proper procedure, it may weaken the case against you. Talk to a North Carolina criminal defense lawyer about to find out what can be done in your case.

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