Maryland Police Trained to Identify Medicated Drivers
Police get special training to identify drivers under the influence of prescription drugs, as well as illegal ones.
By Gus G. Sentementes, The Baltimore Sun
People who drive high on illegal drugs have been a problem for years, but Maryland authorities are increasingly concerned about another highway danger: drivers who get behind the wheel while strung out on prescription medications.
In Harford County, drivers impaired by prescription drugs dominate those arrested for "drugged driving" violations. In Baltimore County, heroin is the leading drug, but legal drugs -- from anti-depressants to powerful narcotics such as OxyContin -- are running a close second, authorities said.
"Within the past four years or so, it's really picked up with those types of [prescription] drugs," said Officer Frank E. Enko, who heads the Baltimore County Police Department's team of 22 drug-recognition experts, known as DREs. "It's really taken off."
A 25-year crusade against drunken driving has sharply cut alcohol-related traffic fatalities across the country, but authorities say a similar get-tough campaign is needed to crack down on drivers impaired by legal and illegal drugs.
"The problem of drugged driving is on a scale similar to drunk driving, and yet all of the response has been on drunk driving," said Dr. Robert L. DuPont, a former national drug official. "It's terra incognita."
Several factors account for the wide disparity between drugged-driving and drunken-driving enforcement, law enforcement officials and other experts said.
For example, Deputy Sheriff Carl N. Brooks with the Harford County sheriff's office does most of the drug evaluations of impaired drivers in Harford and Cecil counties, and he has traveled as far as Westminster in Carroll County upon request.
A 0.07 percent blood-alcohol concentration level earns a driving-while-impaired charge, and a 0.08 level or higher results in a more serious driving-under-the-influence charge.
The technology for simple drug tests was not available until recently, and such tests are not legal in Maryland.
There is no legal intoxication standard for drugged driving similar to the 0.08 standard.
"Society recognizes drunk driving. They understand drunk driving and the per se limit of 0.08 and 0.07," said Sgt. Charles Smith Sr. of the Maryland State Police, who runs the state's DRE program.
But a growing body of research on drugged driving is catching the attention of officials, police agencies and public policy experts. Although illegal drugs such as heroin, marijuana and PCP account for most of the problem, a rising tide of prescription drug abuse over the past decade has begun spilling over onto roads and highways, authorities and experts say.
A recent drugged-driving incident in Howard County was typical. In November, the operator of a Dodge pickup truck, Carl W. Covert, 42, of Pasadena, hit the side of a car on Route 100 in Anne Arundel County about 9 a.m. but kept driving. Howard County police officers found Covert stopped on Route 100 near Route 103, according to court documents.
No sign of alcohol
Covert failed a field sobriety test and was arrested and taken to Howard's southern precinct. There, Officer Joseph A. Gallina, who heads Howard County's team of five DREs, administered an alcohol test, but none was detected, court documents show.
Then Gallina received Covert's permission to conduct a drug-recognition test and determined he was under the influence of a drug, court records said.
A blood test later confirmed the man had Ambien, a popular sleeping medication, in his system, Gallina said.
The case concluded last month when a Howard District Court judge gave Covert probation before judgment for one year and a $45 fine.
Covert declined to comment through Glen Burnie attorney William Turc. "He just wants closure," Turc said.
Speaking generally about the issue, Turc said he is busy handling "many more" DUI cases involving prescription drugs than illegal drugs.
"In most of those cases, it was a prescription drug probably taken by mistake," Turc said. "I've had clients who are on prescribed drugs who take more than they should by mistake or they have an adverse reaction."
For now, there are no precise statistics that reveal distinctions between legal vs. illegal drug abuse among drivers.
Nationwide, nearly 11 million people drove under the influence of illegal drugs -- roughly one-third of the those who drove drunk, according to a 2002 national survey of drug use.
In Maryland, arrests of drivers impaired by illegal or prescription drugs jumped 41 percent from 2000 to 2003.
Last year, of the 23,997 arrests statewide for impaired driving, 582 involved drugs or a mix of drugs and alcohol, according to data from the Maryland State Police.
One recent study of crash victims admitted to Maryland Shock Trauma Center found significant evidence of drug impairment among drivers.
The study, which focused on a three-month period last year and tested several illegal and some legal drugs, found that 51 percent of drivers had drugs in their system. And 30 percent tested positive for alcohol.
"We found that if you're only looking for alcohol, you're going to miss 50 percent of substance abusers," said J. Michael Walsh, president of the Walsh Group in Bethesda, a consulting firm that did the study.
On the front line of the drugged-driving problem are the drug-recognition experts, trained officers or troopers equipped with a thermometer, blood pressure cuff and pupil-measuring device, who can render an expert evaluation soon after an impaired-driving arrest -- and their opinion is admissible as evidence in court.
Prosecutors often hinge their cases on drug tests, but the tests can miss minuscule amounts of drugs in a person's system, said Smith.
The amount might be enough to impair the driver -- that's where an evaluation by a DRE is critical.
"When [a drug test] comes back 'no drugs detected,' I guarantee you, if a DRE determines they're impaired, there's something there that should not be there," Smith said.
DREs conduct a standardized 12-step examination of a suspected drugged driver, including an interview, several eye examinations, coordination tests and a check of vital signs. Based on the results, the officer forms an educated opinion on whether the driver is impaired by drugs.
The expert testimony of the DREs can be essential in winning convictions in drugged-driving cases, police and prosecutors say.
"We haven't lost any cases at trial over the past two years," said Gallina, the Howard DRE coordinator. "Most of the time, the person pleads guilty or is found guilty in trial. Very rarely does the state's attorney lower the charge."
Sometimes in drugged-driving cases, a blood test isn't available to make a case, but the testimony of a DRE can be enough to win a conviction.
Deputy Sheriff Carl Brooks in Harford County said that last year a man who drove off the road and hit a house was convicted of driving under the influence of drugs -- even though he did not allow authorities to administer a blood test.
Brooks performed a drug-recognition evaluation on the driver -- Thomas B. Master, 49, of Bel Air -- after he tested below the legal level of impairment for alcohol.
"He refused a blood test but was still convicted," Brooks said. Master received a two-month jail sentence, with one month suspended, he said. "We had nothing to go on but my observation, and he was still convicted."
Reached by telephone, Master declined to talk about the case in detail. "There are a lot of things that can be an invasion of privacy," he said of the DRE program.
Uneven resources throughout Maryland continue to be a hurdle. Baltimore County has 22 officers trained as DREs, while Baltimore City -- where most drugged drivers are impaired by heroin -- has only seven.
Officer Brian Rice, the city's DRE coordinator, said he hopes to add five more DREs after this year's training session.
"It's a big problem," Rice said. "We have thousands of heroin addicts who live in the city, and a lot of them have driver's licenses."
Some police agencies in Maryland are more aggressive than others in requesting DREs to evaluate drivers who test below the legal limit for alcohol but still show signs of impairment, several DREs said.
"That's what bothers me: when they don't call us out," said Detective Jack Hartzell, who heads Anne Arundel County's team of 12 DREs. And sometimes no DRE is on duty and one needs to be called in from another county, Hartzell and others said.
This year, the drugged-driving issue caught the attention of legislators in Annapolis.
They proposed six bills to strengthen penalties for drugged driving. Only two bills, which were heavily amended, passed the House last month and await Senate consideration.
House Bill 373 would stiffen certain penalties for repeat offenders who drive while impaired by a controlled dangerous substance.
House Bill 376 authorizes a court to order an evaluation for a person who receives probation before judgment, to determine whether the person would benefit from alcohol or drug treatment.
"I think a lot of people have recognized this is an issue, but most states haven't done enough about it," said Del. William A. Bronrott, a Montgomery County Democrat who co-sponsored several of the bills.
"I think the more my colleagues know about the issue and what's at stake, hopefully, the more successful we will be ... in getting all the laws in place to address this problem," Bronrott said.