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DRIVERS EXPERIENCING THE ONSET OF A MEDICAL EVENT MAY MIMIC DRIVING UNDER THE INFLUENCE

 

It’s been a while since I have written about the use of drug recognition experts. Drug recognitions experts or DREs are law enforcement officers who are specially trained and certified to recognize symptoms of drug intoxication in drivers. When a driver is stopped and there is suspicion that the driver is under the influence of drugs, a DRE will be called to assess whether the driver is exhibiting symptoms of being under the influence of drugs.

Many critics of the use of DREs centers around the fact that DRE tests and observations may be subjective and risk false positives. Unlike driving under the influence of alcohol roadside tests, there are no roadside tests for driving under the influence of drugs. If the officer and DRE suspect a person is driving under the influence of drugs, the driver will be arrested and subjected to all that entails and an invasive blood draw.

Imagine that you are driving and experience some disorientation, but you don’t understand you are having a medical event. Your driving may be erratic prompting an officer to pull you over. Once the officer contacts you, she notices that you seem confused and your words are slurred.  She doesn’t smell alcohol on your breath or the burnt smell of cannabis in your car. She asks you to blow into a breathalyzer and that test does not detect the presence of alcohol. So, she calls in a DRE. The DRE performs the DRE 12-step psychophysical tests and notices that you can’t keep your balance, your eyes seem vacant, and your behavior is “off.”   You are arrested for driving under the influence of drugs. You are taken to the police station, booked, and a blood draw is performed. Awaiting the results of the blood draw, you are placed in a jail cell. The only problem is: You were having a stroke!

This happens more often than you might imagine. Police officers often suspect drug intoxication when a driver is actually experiencing a medical event. You know the saying; When you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Not only strokes, but heart attacks, mild brain aneurysm events, and other events that affect the nervous system can cause symptoms that might make a person appear to be under the influence of a drug.

This scenario happened to an Orange County woman several years ago. She was driving her daughter to school when her side mirror clipped another vehicle. An officer observed this event, but the woman was unaware she had clipped the other car because at the time “something was wrong” (as her daughter put it). When the officer pulled the woman over, her speech was erratic and the officer noted that she wasn’t making sense. The driver was given a field sobriety test and observed by a DRE who had responded to the scene. The DRE determined she was under the influence of drugs, and she was booked, spending several hours in jail. Unbeknownst to the woman—or the officers—she had suffered a stroke on the left side of her brain.

What a nightmare! The woman sued the law enforcement agency (Garden Grove Police Department) and the private jailer utilized by the City of Garden Grove. Her case settled recently for $800,000.

The lesson from this story and others like it is that law enforcement needs better training in recognizing the different symptoms between someone who is under the influence of drugs and someone who is having a medical event.

Orange County DUI defense attorney William Weinberg is committed to achieving the best outcome in your DUI defense. He is available for a complimentary consultation where he will review the specifics of your case and make an assessment of your best defense. You  may contact him at his Irvine office by calling 949-474-8008 or by emailing him at bill@williamweinberg.com.