Ohio law enforcement eyes Michigan device

MARIETTA — Michigan law enforcement officers are testing out a pilot program for the next year which puts drugged driving identification in the hands of those performing traffic stops.

Introduced at the beginning of this month, the program has provided a device similar to the preliminary breath test to be used in the field to test for alcohol on the breath, but this one identifies billionths of a gram of amphetamine, benzodiazepines, cannabis, cocaine, methamphetamine and opiates in the saliva of an individual.

The handheld device tests a sample of saliva from a suspect in about five minutes to give a reading for the presence of any of the drugs and then stores the data on a memory card. The data can then be used to back up an arrest but like a field sobriety test is currently not admissible in court.

But local law enforcement say the device is years out from use in southeast Ohio, and may not be needed.

“The patrol has really good training as it is for initial identification,” said Trooper Dustin Payne, the Drug Recognition Expert for the Ohio State Highway Patrol Marietta Post. “Then all law enforcement, Marietta, New Matamoras etc. can call me in to do a more thorough exam.”

Chief Deputy Mark Warden of the Washington County Sheriff’s Office agreed that current practices for identification are adequate, but said additional tools to identify on-scene what a suspect may be under the influence of may be useful.

“You have no idea where on the timeline of that high they are when you pull them over,” Warden explained. “And now that we’re seeing a huge influx of methamphetamines again you’re seeing erratic driving when they get high and then get behind the wheel.”

Payne, who has worked for the patrol for the last eight years, has additional certification to specifically identify drug impairment, though his tests occur after the arrest has been made and the suspect is either at the Washington County Jail or in custody at a local law enforcement station.

“It’s a 12-step exercise we go through, checking vital signs, divided attention, looking for physical and physiological markers,” he explained. “We do it in a controlled environment because you want to give them every single opportunity to prove they are not impaired.”

In Washington County, the Ohio State Highway Patrol has reported 294 arrests for operating a vehicle while impaired thus far this year.

In the same time frame last year arrests had reached 291.

“Forty-nine of those were specifically because of marijuana, and 43 have been for drug impairment,” explained Payne. “And that’s not just illegal drugs that are impairing people. Prescription medications are so easy to get a hold of and those can impair you too, which we can arrest you for if it’s causing a safety concern on the roads.”

Morgan County to date has seen more than double last year’s OVI arrests, with 34 thus far compared to 12 by this time last year.

Monroe County has seen six OVI arrests to date, one more than in 2016.

Noble County has seen 21 OVI arrests this year, six less than last.

Drugs were present in 43 percent of the fatally injured drivers in 2015 nationwide and more than 25 percent of drugged drivers in deadly crashes are 50 or older.

“But not everybody crashes who is impaired,” explained Lt. Chris Chesar, commander of the Marietta post of the highway patrol. “That doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be on the road though and just like with alcohol, with drug-impaired drivers you’re going to see the same behaviors.”

Slowed reaction time, impaired judgment of distance, decreased coordination or ability to hear, aggressiveness and recklessness, dizziness and drowsiness; these are all risks people take when they drive after using different drugs.

But those drivers aren’t only on the roads on weekend nights. In fact, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found inhibiting medication presence is higher in drivers on weekdays than weekends.

The Michigan pilot program is projected to cost $150,000 for the next year and is funded through the state legislature. And while Payne said similar devices aren’t needed to convict irresponsible drivers of impaired driving, he wouldn’t be against the additional aid in the field if it were to help deter unsafe driving practices.

Likewise Warden said he could see the device getting into law enforcement hands more as a probable cause tool than a lab-verified mechanism for conviction.