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Drug Recognition Expert
Dec 17, 2012 12:40 pm
To Ray Justice, a toxicology report is just the proverbial icing on the cake.
Justice, a corporal with the Wilson County Sheriff’s Office, can tell who’s on drugs and what drugs – or types of drugs – they’re on before the ink on the toxicology report is dry.
Justice is a trained and certified Drug Recognition Expert.
“A drug recognition expert is a police officer trained to recognize impairment in drivers under the influence of drugs other than, or in addition to, alcohol,” according to the Tennessee Department of Safety.
“It’s a very systematic process that we go through,” said Justice.
The 12-step evaluation includes traditional methods, such as the breath alcohol test, as well as more nontraditional methods. For example, Justice carries a blood-pressure cuff, stethoscope, a digital thermometer and a pupilometer with him to every traffic wreck that he responds to.
No, he does not perform triage – that’s what the EMTs are for – what he does is examine anyone suspected of driving while impaired for specific physiological “tells.”
According to the Tennessee Drug Category Matrix Chart, there are seven major categories of drugs: central nervous system depressants, hallucinogens, dissociative anesthetic, narcotic analgesic, inhalants and cannabis.
Each of these categories produce distinctive physical indicators, if you know what to look for. If you are taking a CNS stimulant, such as cocaine, your blood pressure will be elevated. If you are taking a narcotic analgesic, such as vicodin, your pupils will be constricted. If you are taking a dissociated anesthetic, such as Ketamine, your muscles will be rigid.
“If I pull somebody over, and they’re messed up but there’s no alcohol, we have this process that we go through,” said Justice.
Often police can and do obtain toxicology reports to support Justice’s findings, but sometimes a suspect will refuse to take the requisite test. As a certified DRE, Justice’s testimony alone can help obtain a conviction.
As the only DRE in Wilson County, Justice works with varying departments within the county. Whenever anyone with the Sheriff’s department makes a DUI arrest, Justice responds to the scene if at all possible.
“Normally, I go to all the wrecks, and I’ll work the wrecks on the shift that I work. If the Highway Patrol is closer, they’ll take it; if I’m closer, then I’ll take it.”
As a DRE, Justice’s main role is to get impaired drivers off the streets.
“What we’re looking for is impairment,” said Justice. “If I find through a routine investigation that a person is impaired, then they get arrested, regardless of what they’re on…It’s only after the arrest has been made that we start looking at what the cause of impairment is.”
While this helps lead to DUI convictions, it can also avoid DUI convictions.
“I have come out to the scene where there were cases that the person was diabetic,” said Justice. “Because of my training and experience, and I could tell that. I’ve got to know that as well because you don’t want somebody charged with DUI if they’re diabetic; they could die…I have been able to actually help people get exonerated that wouldn’t normally be exonerated because I was able to take to them and figure out ‘wait a minute, there’s something medically wrong with them.’”
Justice emphasized that he’s not a doctor and makes no claims of being one. But as a DRE, he must be able to distinguish between medical conditions that need immediate treatment and drug-induced impairment.
Medical conditions, though, must be distinguished from medical treatments. If someone is driving impaired and the cause of the impairment is determined to be legitimate medication, that person can still be charged.
“People believe that if a doctor gives it to them, it’s okay to take it and go through the normal course of their day,” said Justice. “Even though it’s prescribed by a doctor, and even though it’s within the therapeutic level – the therapeutic level of Xanax, it alters your mood. I don’t care if you’re at therapeutic level or not, the therapeutic level can produce impairment and does produce impairment.”
According to Justice, most of the drugs that he does find during his evaluations are prescription narcotics. Justice has even had a case in which the driver faces DUI charges because he drove after taking a Benadryl.
“Do we arrest everybody that is on Xanax? Absolutely not. It’s only once the level of impairment produces and exhibits evidence that they need to be pulled over – the traffic violation has taken place – that we being an investigation of that kind,” said Justice.