Eyes on the Road: How Drug Recognition Experts Keep Us Safe 

Have you ever wondered how law enforcement can tell if someone is driving under the influence of drugs? In Wyoming, and across the United States, there are a specially trained law-enforcement officers with the skills to do just that: Drug Recognition Experts, or DREs for short.  

What is a Drug Recognition Expert (DRE)? 

A DRE is a police officer, trooper or deputy who has gone through extensive training to identify drivers impaired by drugs other than, or in addition to, alcohol. This training isn’t a quick course; it’s a tough, precise program developed in the 1970s by the Los Angeles Police Department and has since become international. 

Why are DREs important? 

Not all impaired driving is drunk driving. The use of drugs, both legal and illegal, can cause people to drive erratically, jeopardizing the safety of fellow motorists as well as themselves. Thanks to their specialized training, DREs can identify drug impairment on the road as well as determine the category of drugs causing impaired driving. This is important because, unlike alcohol impairment, which can be measured using a breath test to determine Blood Alcohol Content (BAC), there is no such test for drug impairment. The training DREs have received help them identify when someone is driving under the influence of drugs or a combination of drugs and alcohol. 

The path to becoming a DRE 

To become a certified DRE, officers undergo more than 100 hours of specialized training in the Drug Evaluation and Classification (DEC) Program. This program is split into three phases: 

  • Pre-school: A preliminary course which provides an overview of the DEC Program. 
  • DEC program training: This includes classroom instruction on various drug categories and the effects they have on the human body and behavior. 
  • Field certification: Officers must complete a series of drug-influence evaluations under the supervision of experienced DRE instructors. 

Only after completing these phases can an officer be certified as a DRE by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). 

DREs in Wyoming: A specialized force 

In Wyoming, DREs are a very important part of law enforcement. These officers are the ones called upon when there is a suspicion a driver is impaired by something other than alcohol. Their evaluation is thorough and can last from 30 to 45 minutes, ensuring they accurately determine the cause of impairment.  

A Closer look at what DREs do 

While most officers receive training in Standardized Field Sobriety Tests (SFSTs), DREs can dive deeper. DREs are trained to look for various signs and symptoms of drug impairment, which might include slurred speech, bloodshot eyes, impaired coordination and altered mental state, among others. These signs are matched against the known effects of various drug categories, helping DREs pinpoint the likely cause of impairment. 

The 12-step DRE protocol 

To determine whether someone is driving under the influence of drugs, DREs follow a standardized 12-step evaluation process. DREs follow these steps in the same order for every impaired-driving situation where drug use is suspected. This methodical approach is not new; it is based on medical procedures which have been used for years to identify drug-induced impairment. 

A DRE works to determine drug-impaired driving by following this process:  

  • Breath Alcohol Test: The DRE reviews the subject’s breath alcohol concentration (BrAC) to assess how much alcohol impairment aligns with the alcohol levels. If not, they proceed with the DRE evaluation. 
  • Interview of the Arresting Officer: The DRE considers the arresting officer’s observations regarding the subject’s behavior, appearance and driving. 
  • Preliminary Examination and First Pulse: This initial health screening is to rule out any medical issues. It includes questions about the subject’s recent consumption of substances and a check for signs of injury or illness. 
  • Eye Examination: The DRE checks for horizontal-gaze nystagmus (HGN) and vertical-gaze nystagmus (VGN), which is an involuntary jerking or movement of the eyes either up and down or side to side. The DRE also checks for the driver’s ability to focus and follow a moving object. 
  • Divided-Attention Psychophysical Tests: These are field sobriety tests designed to assess the subject’s balance, coordination and ability to perform tasks requiring attention and concentration. 
  • Vital Signs and Second Pulse: The DRE measures the subject’s blood pressure, temperature and pulse again. 
  • Dark-Room Examinations: Pupil sizes are measured under varying light conditions to determine if the pupils are normal, dilated or constricted. 
  • Examination for Muscle Tone: Certain drugs can cause muscles to become rigid or loose. The DRE assesses muscle tone to help identify the drug category. 
  • Check for Injection Sites and Third Pulse: This step involves looking for marks on the skin which indicate recent drug use and taking another pulse reading. 
  • Subject’s Statements and Other Observations: After informing the subject of their rights, the DRE asks about the subject’s drug use. Miranda warnings are generally disclosed prior to the evaluation. 
  • Analysis and Opinions of the Evaluator: The DRE makes a determination egarding the subject’s impairment, which includes possible drug categories causing the impairment discovered. 
  • Toxicological Examination: A chemical test is conducted to provide scientific evidence supporting the DRE’s assessment. 

DREs: A Deterrent and a Tool for Prosecution 

The presence of DREs on local law enforcement teams serves as a powerful deterrent to potential drug-impaired drivers. Their expert testimony plays a crucial role in the successful prosecution of DUI cases. They can provide a clear link between a suspect’s behavior and the influence of drugs. 

Wyoming’s Commitment to Road Safety 

The work of DREs is a driving force in Wyoming’s efforts to combat impaired driving. Through their extensive training, standardized process and expert analysis, DREs help keep our roads safe from the unpredictable and often invisible dangers of drug-impaired driving. By using DREs’ expertise, the State of Wyoming can better ensure that those who drive under the influence of drugs are aptly identified and appropriately prosecuted, contributing to the overall safety and well-being of all road users.