With drugged driving on the rise, Vermont just graduated its largest class of drug recognition experts since 2005, Milton’s Sgt. Paul Locke among them, the first in the department’s history to earn the certification.
The state now has 53 DREs statewide, up from 38. Supported by federal highway safety funds, the program trains officers to detect drivers under the influence of drugs besides alcohol.
About half of fatal crashes in Vermont this year to date involved drugs, alcohol or both, according to Vermont State Police. That, plus the gaps in DRE coverage statewide, led to the program’s increased enrollment this year, said VSP Lt. John Flannigan, the state’s drug evaluation and classification coordinator.
And not just any officer can get in. They must first take the Vermont Police Academy’s Advanced Roadside Impaired Driving Enforcement course, be nominated by their supervisor and their county’s state’s attorney and pass oral boards.
Locke completed ARIDE in February and submitted a letter of intent when the latest course opened up. Recognized by the Vt. Governor’s Highway Safety Program for DUI enforcement early in his career, Locke wanted to increase his skills after spending years in a detective suit.
“Unless the officer is trained to know what to look for, they’re letting people go,” Locke said of basic training’s emphasis on drunk driving enforcement.
“Knowing what I know now, I should have done more back then,” he added. “All those four, five, six people I let go, who now I believe were under the influence, unfortunately could have hurt somebody because I didn’t know the difference.”
DREs use an internationally adopted, 12-step protocol that’s initiated when patrol officers believe a driver is impaired but there’s no sign of alcohol. In Vermont, the officer calls VSP to dispatch a DRE to the scene. Locke’s region encompasses Chittenden, Franklin and Lamoille counties.
They then check the operator’s pupil size, dexterity, muscle tone, vital signs and more before making a determination if he or she is impaired. Police can then arrest the suspect and request a blood test, just as with a standard DUI. The evaluation can take up to an hour, Locke said.
Locke thinks the course is more important now that Vermont is on a path to legalize marijuana.
After vetoing a bill last session, Gov. Phil Scott charged a Marijuana Advisory Commission to report on highway safety and cannabis, especially since there’s no nationally adopted “roadside test” to detect a driver’s level of impairment on pot.
Cannabis is one of seven types of drugs DREs learn to detect. Others include depressants like Xanax, Valium and even Prozac; stimulants such as crack cocaine and methamphetamine; narcotics like heroin and OxyContin; dissociative drugs such as PCP; and hallucinogens and inhalants.
For two weeks, Locke took courses at a South Burlington hotel, eating and sleeping there and staying up all night studying for exams. He and the 14 other candidates then completed field training at Maricopa County Jail in Phoenix, Ariz., where arrestees who used drugs within 24 hours consented to be evaluated by DREs in training.
“Things are a little bit different than they are here,” Locke reflected, noting his first subject was high on meth, coke, heroin and pot. “It was an eye-opener that, wow, there are a lot of drugs out there, but it also makes you wonder how much of that is up here that we’re not seeing.”
And sometimes, it may turn out the driver is not impaired at all – or his or her impairment is from legally prescribed medication or stems from a medical condition.
As such, Locke sees DREs as neutral parties who can both aid an officer in establishing probable cause and support drivers who say they’re not impaired. His first and only callout since his certification on September 29 made this very conclusion.
“I really have no dog in the fight; I’m just there to give my opinion,” Locke said.
Flannigan rebutted criticism that DRE protocol is subjective “junk science,” saying Vermont courts have widely accepted DRE evidence.
“[That’s] not to say there hasn’t been some rulings that have been negative, but I think by far and large, there’s been rulings throughout the country that have been positive that the DRE program uses those valid principles,” he said.
Locke plans to pass down his DRE training and thinks it will give Milton another tool besides its K9, Hatchi, to aid other agencies in drug enforcement.
“In the past, we’ve always depended on other agencies to help us,” he said. “Now it’s time for us to give back because we have that experience.”
It’s one Flannigan thinks was well-earned, saying DRE certification is “grueling … probably one of the most difficult law enforcement trainings offered in a police officer’s career.”
Flannigan said there’s a constant need to educate the public about impaired driving, and having more DREs can only help.
“People have been hearing for decades to not drink and drive, but clearly prescriptions can impact a person’s ability to operate a vehicle,” he said. “We’ve got to get that message out there more.”