Arizona Drugged Drivers Often Face Greater Scrutiny Than Drunk Drivers

Anyone who drives knows about the issues related to drunk driving, however, some Arizona criminal defense lawyers say that not as many people recognize the unfair problems presented by allegations of drugged driving, or driving under the influence of drugs (DUID). We might assume the drugs involved are illegal drugs; however, many legal prescription drugs can get someone in trouble without their knowledge.

In Arizona, it is illegal to drive if any amount of certain illegal drugs is found in the driver's system. Like 17 states, Arizona has developed a "zero tolerance" statute for illegal drugs; which means that if any amount of an illegal drug or its metabolite is found in your system than you are DUI. Illegal also includes prescription drugs not prescribed to you.

This is callously justified because there is no scientific method to equate specific levels at which a drug or combination of drugs causes impairment. Many factors come into play, including the chemistry of each drug, possible drug interactions and even an individual's gender and body chemistry.

Other states have combated this dilemma by creating rational per se levels. For instance, trace amounts of THC (the primary impairing ingredient in marijuana) generally won't cause impairment. Therefore, states have used 5 or 15 ng/ml as arbitrary cut offs. Arizona insists-even with 0 THC but some minute trace of one of its metabolites-to prosecute as if the person, known not to be impaired, is impaired.

Results of the 2007 National Roadside Survey of Alcohol and Drug Use by Drivers

Even if there is no agreement as to what constitutes impairment, drivers are using both prescription and illegal drugs and getting behind the wheel. A National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) study from 2007 found a drug use rate of 11 percent for daytime drivers and 14.4 percent for nighttime drivers.

Among nighttime drivers 16.3 percent overall tested positive for at least one of the drugs. This included all drugs tested, whether illegal, prescription, or over-the-counter. The most frequently encountered drug, other than alcohol, was marijuana.

The study noted that the numbers presented were only estimates of the prevalence of drug use among drivers. It did not examine the effect of drug use on increasing the risk of motor vehicle accidents. It should be noted that critics argue that those who undertook this study were less than scientific in their analysis and were overly results driven. However, the underlying issue remains that driving while impaired by drugs is a problem. The question becomes whether or not a zero tolerance rule is a responsible tool to utilize or whether better methods exist for enforcement.

Presence of Drugs Does not Equal Impairment

Unlike alcohol, where it is easy to show increasing impairment as the blood alcohol content (BAC) increases, the presence of trace amounts of a drug does not imply impairment.

Some types of drugs have a drug presence that can be detected long after any impairment that might affect driving has passed. For instance, traces of marijuana can be detected in blood samples several weeks after users stop ingestion.

Because there is no simple test to quickly identify a drugged driver, law enforcement have attempted to train personnel to identify individuals under the influence of drugs. This officer is known as a drug recognition expert (DRE).

What is a Drug Recognition Expert (DRE)?

The intended purpose of a DRE is to differentiate between drug influence and medical and/or mental disorders. The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) was the first department to develop this type of program in the early 1970s.

LAPD officers noticed that some drivers arrested for DUI had very low or zero alcohol concentrations. The officers suspected that the drivers were under the influence of drugs, but lacked a test or other evidence to prove impairment.

In response, members of the LAPD worked with medical doctors, research psychologists, and other medical professionals to develop a standardized procedure for recognizing drug influence and impairment.

How a Drug Recognition Expert Works

A properly trained DRE uses a standardized and systematic method for examining a driving under the influence of drugs (DUID) suspect to determine the following:

  • Whether or not the suspect is impaired; and if so,
  • Whether the impairment relates to drugs or a medical condition; and if drugs,
  • What category or combination of categories of drugs is likely to cause impairment

Officers trained to administer a DRE are often pure of heart, but the practical reality is that they have almost always been tainted and are not independent arbiters of fact as they claim to be. Officers are human and are often subject to the same faults everyday individuals are. Because DRE's are not segregated from the investigation they are usually biased administers who find signs of the symptoms generally associated with the type of drug suspected.

Of course, the problem with DRE's is that their accuracy is dependent on their experience and subjective knowledge.

Prescription Drugs not Included

While there is zero tolerance for illegal drugs, prescription drugs are exempt from that standard only if the drugs are prescribed by a licensed medical practitioner. For a successfully prosecution, the state has to prove the driver was impaired while using the drug. Many defense attorneys are distraught to see a case where a person had taken a pain pill proscribed to their spouse for legitimate purposes and is pulled over three days later. The prescription drug defense is not available to that individual. So a person in legitimate pain took a pain pill that was procured using legal methods and not in any way impaired by the pill, is technically guilty of a crime simply because they got behind the wheel of a car.

The results of zero tolerance statues are good citizens being labeled criminals all for the simplicity of State Prosecuting agencies.