In the 1980s, the Los Angeles Police Department began developing a program to train police officers on how to determine if drivers suspected of being under the influence and having tested well below the legal limit for alcohol, had instead used a controlled substance and the drug category most likely causing the impairment.
In 1986, the Department conducted a special school for 18 officers to instruct them on how to make both determinations. As a result, the concept of a “Drug Recognition Expert” (DRE) became a reality.
Since then the DRE program has dramatically expanded and there are DREs in all 50 states.
Becoming one is not easy and before a police officer can even apply to the DRE school they must have completed an approved course in Standardized Field Sobriety Testing (SFST).
If accepted, the officer will learn about the seven drug categories, human physiology, the signs and symptoms of a drug-impaired driver, and how to conduct a 12-step field evaluation of a suspect. There are both classroom lectures and field training.
The evaluation combines what was learned in the classroom with actual field observations and techniques to be used at a scene and consists of the following:
• Initial breath test review
• Interview of the arresting officer
• Preliminary exam to determine if the suspect is injured including taking a pulse
• Examination of eyes for jerking, difficulty following an object, lack of convergence
• Psychophysical tests including SFST and others
• Vital signs examination and taking a second pulse
• Examination of pupil size
• Muscle tone examination
• Checking for injection sites and taking a third pulse
• Reviewing the subject’s statements
• Forming an opinion on impairment and the drug category
• Chemical or blood testing
National Highway Traffic Safety Association statistics show that DREs have a high success rate in identifying drugged drivers.
Nationally there are more than 9,400 DREs. Michigan has 137 who are used statewide and are currently an integral part of the Michigan State Police Pilot Program allowing roadside saliva testing of suspected drugged drivers.
Michigan’s courts have yet to rule on whether DREs can be expert witnesses and other state courts are split.
For those interested more DRE information is available at laponline.org.