A drug recognition expert, or DRE, is an officer with special training and certification in detecting signs of drug use or impairment in others. The training for certification is provided by NHTSA, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and it is only available to those in law enforcement. A DRE utilizes a 12 step evaluation process that is designed to reveal if a driver is impaired by a drug other than alcohol or in addition to alcohol. They are increasingly used by law enforcement.
DREs are most commonly used in roadside tests to help determine the impairment of a driver. This is especially true when an officer suspects a drug other than alcohol or when the results of an alcohol breath test do not appear consistent with the driver’s behavior. They are not always called in, but when they are available to conduct evaluations, their observations are taken very seriously as trained experts. They not only observe the person suspected of impairment but they oversee how the procedures are applied by other officers. The evaluation includes checking the eyes, vital signs, several pulse checks, observations of muscle tone, looking for needle marks and general observations about the subject.
The implications of using a DRE are significant. Because of their training and certification, many jurisdictions regard them as an expert, which means their testimony can work against a defendant charged with impaired driving and it is difficult testimony to refute. Furthermore, the evidence they provide as trained observers may be admissible in a civil damages case to show liability. For example, if you are accused of being responsible for an accident and the other party sues you for damages, then the DRE’s testimony may work against you to argue that your impairment led to the accident.
DREs utilize a specific method, therefore anyone scrutinizing a case, like an officer, or an attorney, or the court is able to review how accurately the DRE applied the technique. The methods used by DREs were developed in the 1970s and primarily focused on alcohol consumption. So if you are pulled over for driving while high, this expert may not be able to accurately determine if you are too impaired to drive, even if they can tell there has been marijuana use. The evaluation is considered scientific because it is based on the results of studies which observed impaired driving and determined best methods of detection. However, as our understanding of impairment and particularly marijuana use and its effects evolves, some of these older claims may be challenged. Lastly, a DRE is a human being and there is always a possibility of error or bias. This is where an attorney who understands DRE evaluations and other forensic technology methods is vital to a case. DREs and their testimony may carry a great deal of weight, but they are not infallible.
Thanks to our friends at Hebets & McCallin for their insight into Drug Recognition Evaluations.