How A Drug Recognition Expert Is Used In DUI Cases

Midsection of a male police officer inserting drug packet in envelope during investigation

When a driver appears to be intoxicated but there is no evidence that they have consumed alcohol, police may call in a drug recognition expert (DRE) to assess whether the driver is under the influence of drugs. The DRE will conduct an assessment that is supposed to consider the driver’s health and vital signs, as well as reactions and responses to tests that are designed to assess a driver’s coordination, judgment, and other characteristics.

If, in the opinion of the DRE, you were under the influence of drugs, you will be charged with Driving Under the Influence (DUI), just as if you had been under the influence of alcohol.

In Connecticut, DREs are trained and certified, and courts can lawfully presume that their methods are scientific. As a result, challenging a DRE’s opinion can be difficult. But experienced DUI defense attorney Stephen Lebedevitch can mount a legal defense to undermine the credibility of the DRE, which could lead to a reduction in the charges against you, a favorable plea deal, or even outright dismissal of the case.

What Is a Drug Recognition Expert?

A drug recognition expert, or DRE, is a police offer who has received additional training to identify drivers who are allegedly under the influence of drugs, as opposed to alcohol.

The DRE program originated in the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) in the 1970s when LAPD officers observed that many people who were arrested for Driving Under the Influence (DUI) had low or zero alcohol concentrations. The officers suspected the drivers were under the influence of drugs, but they lacked the skills and training to support their suspicion.

In response, the LAPD created a procedure that was intended to identify people who were under the influence of drugs.

  • Breath Alcohol Test. If a police officer suspects a driver is intoxicated, they must first test the driver’s Breath Alcohol Content (BrAC). If there is no evidence of alcohol intoxication, the officer may request assistance from a DRE.
  • Interview the Arresting Officer. The DRE begins the assessment by asking the officer who made the request to identify the signs of intoxication that were observed, such as the driver’s behavior, appearance, and driving.
  • Preliminary Examination. The preliminary evaluation identifies medical causes that might explain the driver’s behavior. The DRE will ask questions about the driver’s health, when they last ate and drank, and any drugs they took, including prescription medications.
  • Eye Examination. The DRE will administer the Horizontal Nystagmus Gaze test. However, the Vertical Nystagmus Gaze test is sometimes used as well.
  • Romberg Balance Test. To administer this test, the DRE will ask you to stand with your feet together, head tilted slightly back and eyes closed. You will be asked to estimate when 30 seconds has passed, and say "stop" when you think it's been that long.
  • Field Sobriety Tests. Standard Field Sobriety Tests are administered, including Standing on One Foot, the Walk and Turn, and the Finger to Nose test.
  • Vital Signs. The DRE records the suspect’s blood pressure, temperature, and pulse.
  • Dark Room Examination. The suspect’s pupil size is evaluated under three different lighting conditions to determine whether the suspect’s eyes are dilated, constricted, or normal.
  • Examine Muscle Tone. The DRE tests the suspect’s muscle tone. Certain drugs cause the muscles to become rigid, while others cause the muscles to become loose.
  • Check for Injection Sites. The suspect is examined for possible injection sites which might indicate drug use.
  • Suspect Statements and Other Observations. The DRE reads the suspect the Miranda warnings and asks questions about the suspect’s history of drug use.
  • Analyze Data. Based on the examination, the DRE forms an opinion about whether the suspect is impaired and, if so, the types of drugs that may have caused the impairment.

Toxicological Examination. The DRE administers a chemical test to provide additional evidence to support their conclusions.

Challenging a DRE Assessment

A DRE’s opinion is presumed to be admissible. But an experienced DUI defense attorney can challenge the science that underlies the DRE’s opinion by questioning the scientific reliability of their methods and whether their opinion is valid.

Simply put, a DRE lacks the scientific or medical expertise to diagnose medical symptoms. Even if they claim to have determined that a driver was under the influence of drugs, their opinion is really only slightly more than an educated guess.

Toxicology, physiology, and the human nervous system are incredibly complex. It takes years of education and training to understand these principles and analyze whether a driver is under the influence of drugs. Yet a DRE receives a mere 72 hours of classroom training, plus 40 to 60 hours of field training. And that training spends surprisingly little time addressing these complex fields. Instead, it is devoted almost entirely to topics like preparing for and testifying at a DUI trial.

The effect of drugs on a person is determined by the type of drug that was taken, the dosage, its potency, how it was ingested, how long ago it was taken, as well as the user’s gender, body mass, age, and genetic makeup. To make a scientifically accurate determination about whether a person was impaired would require, at minimum, a thorough review of the driver’s entire medical history. However, nothing this comprehensive is required for a DRE evaluation or is part of DRE training. A DRE officer simply does not have the experience or training to officer a scientifically valid opinion on whether a driver is under the influence of drugs, and their testimony should not be considered as anything more than their personal observations and opinions.

Unfortunately, at trial, the testimony of a DRE may appear to be impressive and can be difficult to dispute. But experienced DUI defense attorney Stephen Lebedevitch can challenge the admissibility of the DRE’s opinion. Even if the testimony is allowed, calling into question its accuracy and validity can lead to a reduction in charges, dismissal of the case, or a Not Guilty verdict.

Contact The Lebedevitch Law Firm for Aggressive DUI Defense

If you have been charged with a DUI, you need to work with an attorney who understands the science behind impairment and can mount an effective defense to the DRE’s testimony.

Connecticut DUI defense attorney Stephen Lebedevitch aggressively defends people accused of DUI. He knows how to effectively challenge the testimony of a DRE to give you the best chance of beating a DUI charge.

The Lebedevitch Law Firm is based in Fairfield, Connecticut, and handles DUI cases throughout Stamford, Greenwich, New Canaan, Norwalk, Darien, Rowayton, Fairfield, Trumbull, Westport, Wilton, Weston, Danbury, New Haven, Bethany, Woodbridge, Milford, Stratford, Bridgeport, and throughout the State of Connecticut.

We offer predictable flat fees in DUI cases. Contact us today for a free consultation.