Drugged Driving Tough to Detect, Convict

With a single blow into a breathalyzer, law enforcement can determine if a suspected drunk driver is legally allowed to be behind the wheel. But when it comes to driving under the influence of drugs -- prescriptions or illegal narcotics -- it’s not as simple.

And, unlike the .08 limit defined by the law as legally intoxicated to drive, there is no law defining the level of impairment allowable for drivers under the influence of drugs.

That makes identifying and convicting drivers impaired by drugs a challenge for both police and prosecutors.

NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit found drugged-driving crashes are on the rise, and for most of those, the drivers are not convicted of a DUI, according to DMV statistics. However, the state doesn’t track DUIs for drugs separately from alcohol-related DUIs if a crash isn’t involved, making it difficult to identify the extent of the problem.

According to California’s Department of Motor Vehicles, drug-involved crash fatalities jumped 39.3 percent in the last 10 years. And, according to California’s DMV, the majority of drug-involved drivers in fatal/injury crashes are not convicted of DUI associated with the crash.

Now, law enforcement around the state are beginning to increase specialized training regimes to find ways to crack down on this problem and to work with prosecutors to build stronger cases in court to get convictions in cases involving drug-related DUIs.

Officer Jacob Provencio is a DUI specialist with the Redding Police Department.

Last year, the Office of Traffic Safety recognized him for making 250 DUI arrests. In 75 of those cases, the drivers had been suspected of using drugs.

“You get someone dangerous off the street,” Officer Provencio told the Investigative Unit during a Wednesday night ride-along in his patrol car.

NBC Bay Area watched as Provencio made a drug DUI arrest, performing field sobriety tests similar to the ones used to determine whether a suspected drunk driver is too intoxicated. In this case, Provencio identified impairment from a combination of prescription drugs and illegal narcotics.

“A lot of it’s the eyes,” he said. “I think he’s using something that’s kicking him up and bringing him down at the same time.”

Provencio is a Drug Recognition Expert (DRE) trained by the California Highway Patrol.

DRE training involves a two-week intensive course where officers learn to identify seven drug categories and how they affect the human body at different levels.

DRE-trained officers learn a series of tests to perform on suspected drugged drivers. While similar to alcohol-related DUI tests, these tests are different in critical ways.

As part of the specialized DRE training, the officers go through six field days where they test drugged drivers and report their diagnoses. If their estimations match toxicology lab results from the individual’s blood test, an officer gets certified as a Drug Recognition Expert.

Provencio recalls one driver he pulled over before getting DRE trained: “I knew he was messed up,” he said. “I put him home in a cab, but I couldn’t put it all together.”

Then, just months after getting DRE certified, one of his colleagues pulls over that same driver and called Provencio for backup.

“That was an opportunity to go back and find him with all the training and be able to say, ‘Now I have the information that I need. You’re not getting away this time,’” he said.

Provencio identified the man as being on a mix of cocaine and prescription drugs.

However, right now in California, the vehicle code for drug DUIs or DUIs related to alcohol are one and the same. That makes it impossible to know how many DUI arrests were made for drugs alone. Because of that, it is impossible to accurately track drug DUI’s geographically, by age or by any other characteristic.

Beginning January 1, 2014, California law will split up the types of DUIs. That will allow law enforcement to separately track drivers arrested for driving under the influence of drugs.

“It’s such a risk to do that [drive under the influence of drugs] and go out on the road and rip people’s families apart,” said Kelli Groves, a victim of a drugged driving collision. “The word senseless is all I can think about.”

RELATED: Family Rescued From Car Dangling Off Freeway Bridge

Nearly two years ago, Groves’ BMW was hit by the cab of a big rig truck on US Highway 101 near Santa Barbara as it swerved into her lane on a bridge. The truck went over the bridge and burst into flames, killing the driver.

Kelly’s car, with her 10-week-old baby, Milo, and 10-year-old daughter, Sage, in the backseat, was left teetering on a ledge with a 100-foot drop below.

“At that point, I was just screaming for someone, anyone to get us out of here,” Groves said.

Rescue workers eventually did get the family out and all survived.

Then came another blow: the coroner’s report on the truck driver showed he had high levels of methamphetamines in his system.

“I think I was somewhat at peace with this when I knew accidents happen, and we are so lucky to have survived this accident,” Groves said. “But when there was the drug issue that was brought up, (I thought), this wasn’t an accident. This could’ve been prevented.”

“Anyone driving on the road impaired is a concern of ours,” said Sgt. Jarrod Primicerio, a DRE trainer with CHP.

In the last year alone, California’s Highway Patrol has given specialized DRE training to 111 students from police departments from across the state, including 19 officers in the Bay Area as well as 61 CHP officers, an Alaska state trooper and 2 members of the Hong Kong Police Department.

“Our ability to recognize these individuals and take action is crucial,” Primicerio said.

The CHP is also trying to make it easier to obtain evidence from the scene in drug-impaired driving cases. A new roadside drug test is being tested in four counties -- Sacramento, Los Angeles, Kern and Orange -- where officers can take a swab from a driver’s saliva to indicate which drugs are in his system within minutes.

Taking action in court is also a challenge when it comes to drug DUIs. Prosecutors simply do not or will not pursue some of these cases.

“They’re afraid to take those cases to trial because they are difficult to prove to a jury,” the California District Attorneys’ Association’s Dave Radford told the Investigative Unit.

Radford is a former police officer and district attorney. He now trains officers and prosecutors how to work together to build strong misdemeanor drug DUI cases linking signs of drug use to impairment behind the wheel.

“The gap is in training, because the officer needs to be trained and the prosecutor needs to be trained to convince a jury,” Radford said. “A lot of prosecutors are afraid of drug DUIs because they don’t have the background knowledge about drug influence and drug impairment.”

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