AURORA, Ill. — A woman had wrecked her car, ran away and hid in a bush for an hour before she was found by police. She was examined by Aurora Police Officer Edwina Pirela, one of the department’s two drug recognition experts, to help determine if the driver was under the influence of drugs.
Without a simple breath test like there is for alcohol, law enforcement agencies are calling in these new specially trained officers to deal with cases involving drugs.
Pirela said the woman confessed she drank an entire bottle of vodka. Pirela thought she would act relaxed and sleepy, but instead, her eyes were huge, she was “bouncing off the walls" and talked a mile a minute. It wasn’t until Pirela pulled out a black light during the exam that she could see cocaine residue on the woman’s face.
The exam that drug recognition experts conduct helps to show officers if someone is impaired, what category drug they could be on or if the person has a medical condition. And come Jan. 1 when recreational marijuana is legalized, Aurora police officers and other suburban officials believe those experts will play a much bigger role in detecting drivers who are high.
Drug recognition experts are somewhat rare, representing only about 160 officers out of the about 40,000 law enforcement officers in the state of Illinois.
Kane County State’s Attorney Joe McMahon said more officers need training in how to recognize the signs of drug use with the legalization of marijuana.
“It’s an expensive but very important process,” McMahon said. “I don’t know how many there are in the county, but not every police department has them.”
The drug recognition experts, known as DRE officers, classify the type of drug a person took into one of seven categories by using a 12-step evaluation process that looks at variables like the person’s pulse, their eye movements and the size of their pupils, Pirela said.
The eyes can tell a lot, like if someone has dilated or constricted pupils, tremors in the eyelids or jerking eyes that cannot follow someone’s finger, Pirela said. Other signs include someone’s body temperature, odors and slurred speech. The ruling is based on a combination of factors and has to hit a number of clues on each test, Aurora DRE Officer Todd Fanscali said.
The person could have also taken multiple drugs at once and they are working against each other, Pirela said.
“Two drugs could up it so their heart rate could be through the roof and you’re like holy Jesus, what did this dude take?” Pirela said. “But they probably took a combination of things that are working together to go up, up, up.”
DRE officers carry around a bag of tools far different from a standard police officer, including a stethoscope, thermometers, pupil measuring charts, flashlight to shine in someone’s eyes, a black light and blood pressure cuffs.
The officers are qualified by a judge as an expert witness in court and can testify as to whether the driver was high or under the influence.
Unlike alcohol, there is no definitive test, like a Breathalyzer, that can indicate if someone is driving after using marijuana or other drugs.
Blood tests, the most common way to test for marijuana, are expensive, time-consuming and can be inaccurate to show the actual impairment at the time of a crash, officials said. Marijuana can stay in a person’s body for weeks, allowing a person to test positively long after the drug has worn off.
While breath-type tests for marijuana are being developed, they have not been fully tested and considered reliable in the courts, McMahon said.
“We are hopeful for that technology and it could be something in our tool belt in the future,” Aurora police spokesman Paris Lewbel said. “But right now, it is not something we can use in court. We are going to use the tools we have available.”
For now, Fanscali said drug recognition experts are the stop gap and he expects their roles to be increased. Pirela said she hopes to see more day shift officers become trained because there are a lot of people driving after taking pills.
“What has become a big issue is cannabis and a lot of Xanax drivers,” Pirela said. “Xanax puts them in a dazed state and I’ve seen one guy crash into a whole parking lot of cars and then just fall asleep.”
Fanscali said he also expects to see more impaired driving during the day because people typically are driving under the influence of alcohol at night coming home from bars, but marijuana smokers tend to use at any time of day.
After Colorado legalized marijuana for medical and recreational use, the number of drivers in fatal crashes who tested positive for marijuana more than doubled, according to a study by the Governors Highway Safety Association.
The cities of Naperville, Elgin, St. Charles and Aurora have drug recognition experts. There is only one DRE training program each year in Illinois that is open to about 30 officers. Officers who are trained must be willing to share their knowledge with other agencies.
All officers learn standardized field sobriety testing at the police academy, but the drug recognition expert training is much more intense, Pirela said. It requires 72 hours in the classroom, 12 supervised evaluations and passing a final exam. Officers then need to be recertified every two years.
Fanscali said he had around 100 hours of home-study to complete with a lot of new things to memorize.
“This is new stuff for police officers because it delves into the medical side, the psychological side and a lot of drug terminology,” Fanscali said. “Unless you’ve been in a drug unit, or were a pharmacist, the average officer isn’t going to know.”
Arresting officers call a DRE officer if they suspect drug use, and the person is brought to the police station for an evaluation that takes around one hour, Pirela said. The person must give consent for the exam.
Officers can request blood and urine tests, however, people can refuse and face possible suspension of their driver’s license. Drivers with 5 nanograms of THC in one milliliter of blood or 10 nanograms in bodily fluids like saliva or urine are considered under the influence, officials said.
Pirela said she wants to prevent deaths after seeing her friend’s family members killed in a DUI crash.
“It’s just unacceptable and I’m out there trying to prevent those innocent people from dying,” Pirela said.
Gearing up for Jan. 1, Lewbel said a prosecutor has attended all roll calls at the Aurora Police Department to give a presentation and guides out to all officers to walk them through the changed state laws and city ordinances that go into effect.
“We know we’ll see people driving under the influence of cannabis and we want them to know reaction times are slower,” Lewbel said. “As we’ve seen in other states, there seems to be an increase in fatal accidents. It’s something we really don’t want to happen here.”
Pirela said she hopes people will make the right choices and not drive while high.
“But if they do make that choice, I’ll be here,” she said. “I’ll be waiting for them.”