Drug Recognition Examinations and the "Experts" Who Conduct Them

Posted by Daniel J. Gerl | Jan 11, 2015 | 0 Comments

What is a "DRE?"

A Drug Recognition "Expert," or "DRE," is a police officer with additional training in the area of drug detection. DREs evaluate people arrested for DUI who are suspected of being under the influence of something other than alcohol. DREs will often testify later in court regarding that evaluation, and offer their opinion regarding the test subject's impairment.

Those selected for DRE training undertake 72 hours of instruction where they learn about different drugs, how these drugs affect the human body and one's ability to drive, and what classifications these drugs fall under. DREs learn that there are seven drug "classifications," including Central Nervous System Depressants (CNS), which in many ways affect the body like alcohol; Stimulants like cocaine and methamphetamine, Cannaboids (marijuana), and Narcotic Analgesics (opiates like Heroin and Methadone).

In order to qualify for the DRE training course, candidates must have completed a 24-hour class on Field Sobriety Tests and a 16-hour "Advanced Roadside Impaired Driving Enforcement" class (ARIDE). There is no requirement that the DRE have any formal education, or have studied biology, chemistry, or human anatomy. In lieu of such education DREs often refer to charts that they are given in their training and refer to those during their investigations.

DREs Don't Just Investigate – They Talk About It In Court.

Following completion of the 12-step Drug Recognition Evaluation, a properly qualified DRE may offer her opinion in court that the subject was impaired by drugs of a particular classification.

I recently had a trial with a DRE who testified that she was a sergeant, and was responsible for training other DREs throughout the State. Given her testimony, it was hard for me to understand why this officer is in charge of training others in DRE investigation.

For instance, she testified that Clonidine is a Narcotic Analgesic. (Clonidine is actually an antihypertensive, usually prescribed for heart regulation, with no impairing effects.) When I confronted her on cross examination she admitted that she had been mistaken – that Clonidine was actually a "depressant" – but she wasn't sure what kind, and really wasn't too familiar with it. After the lunch break, testimony resumed and wouldn't you know it, that DRE who apparently spent her lunch time brushing up on her charts now had all sorts of interesting things to say about Clonidine and all the terrible ways it could wreak havoc on one's ability to drive safely.

This DRE also told the jury about the 12-step examination that she conducted on the defendant, which led her to the opinion that he was impaired by Narcotic Analgesics. The truth is, the only thing she really learned during the examination was that he had taken Methadone (a Narcotic Analgesic) earlier that day, which he told her during the interview portion. This defendant took a prescribed daily dosage of Methadone, under the care of a doctor, for pain management.  His admission was really all the DRE based her opinion of impairment on; in fact, many of the observations she made of my client were actually inconsistent with Methadone impairment.

But DREs are Objective, Right? (Yeah...Right.)

To become a DRE, candidates must provide a letter of reference from their chain of command as well as a city or county prosecuting attorney. When that DRE testifies later in court, they very well may be testifying in support of the same prosecutor who wrote them their letter of recommendation. (Let that sink in for a moment.)

In my trial, the DRE's testimony was so lacking in credibility and tilted in favor of the prosecution that, after the trial, the jurors stuck around to tell me how unreliable they found her testimony to have been. (Unfortunately for the defendant, there was enough evidence of impairment outside of the DRE investigation that the jury found him guilty.)

Just Say "No” To The DRE Evaluation – But Nothing More.

Like Field Sobriety Tests, the DRE evaluation is completely voluntary and the DRE must so advise her subject. In my case, had the defendant declined the the DRE evaluation, or at least not answered the “expert's” questions and simply chosen to remain silent – which was his constitutional right – the "expert" certainly wouldn't have concluded that he was impaired by Narcotic Analgesics, based on what else she observed. Which means her actual opinion that he was under their influence was worthless.

I cannot stress enough the importance of remaining silent. Far more often than not, statements made to police are the most powerful evidence used against them. Often those statements are taken out of context, with no other witnesses (other than, perhaps, other cops) to explain what was really said. Which means you either take the stand to explain what you meant (good luck with that), which also opens you up to cross-examination by the prosecutor. If you are arrested for DUI, whether due to alcohol or drugs, you have nothing to gain by opening your mouth. So zip it.

About the Author

Daniel J. Gerl

Dan Gerl is a former prosecutor with over ten years of experience handling DUI, criminal and traffic cases throughout Western Washington. Dan handled hundreds of traffic infractions, avoiding negative impact on driving records over 98% of the time . If you are cited with a traffic or speeding infraction, and you want to keep your record clean, Puget Law Group is your best defense!

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