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Pennsylvania

Program will help ID drug-impaired drivers

| Thursday, Feb. 28, 2008

State police hope to remove impaired drivers from Pennsylvania roads with training that helps officers identify drug users pulled over during traffic stops.

The drug-recognition expert program has grown from eight trained officers and 53 drug evaluations in 2005 to 36 officers and 440 evaluations last year.

"We are training officers to determine if a driver is under the influence of illegal drugs, prescription drugs or other substances that impair a person's ability to operate a vehicle safely," state police Commissioner Jeffrey B. Miller said.

State police Capt. Jacob Criders said the state expects to train 20 new drug-recognition experts in 2008.

Local police officers are eligible for training, but the amount of time -- 200 hours -- can be an impediment for small departments, Criders said.

The experts, called DREs, originated with the Los Angeles Police Department in the 1970s.

It wasn't until 1987 that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration of the U.S. Department of Transportation initiated pilot programs in Arizona, Colorado, New York and Virginia.

Forty-four states and the District of Columbia field detection experts, all of whom are certified by the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

These experts only move into action after a driver has passed an alcohol sobriety test, but still appears impaired.

"We bring them in once alcohol is ruled out," said Criders, who is based at state police headquarters in Harrisburg. "Most of the work is done at the (police) station."

Troop A in Greensburg has one drug-recognition expert, Trooper Scott Gregg, Criders said. Gregg was not available for comment.

The identification "protocol," Crider said, includes a check of the driver's pulse, an eye examination, a motor-skills test, a dark-room examination of pupil size, an examination of muscle tone, a check of needle injection sites and toxicology tests involving urine, blood and/or saliva.

Crider said suspects are held under the general charge of driving under the influence. The testing takes about 20 minutes, he said.

The goal is to place a drug-recognition expert at every state police station, and to engage as many municipal departments as possible, Crider said.

Greensburg Police Chief Walter Lyons said members of his department have received training in the detection of drug use.

Lyons and Uniontown Police Chief Jason Cox said they have little information about the DRE training.

Dr. Jeffrey Michael, director of DOT's office of impaired driving, said upwards of 8,000 drug-recognition evaluations were made in the United States last year. He said the government's goal was to extend the training to every state.

The prosecution of drug-impairment cases generally "is very difficult," Michael said. "That is why the training is so thorough."

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