I’ve been writing for some time now that roadside drug tests for suspected DUI of drugs stops are not far off. The increase in drug usage and the growing acceptance of marijuana has law enforcement agencies and law makers clamoring for a device that can quickly and accurately test whether drivers are under the influence of drugs. While current devices are not quite yet capable of telling law enforcement how intoxicated a driver might be, they can say whether a driver has drugs in their system. And San Diego became the latest city to use such devices roadside.
Last week, San Diego police began using roadside oral swabs to test drivers for the presence of marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, amphetamine, methadone, opiates, and benzodiazepines. The oral swabs cannot, however, test the amount of drugs in the driver’s system nor can it test for the driver’s level of intoxication.
The inability to test for quantity of drug or intoxication is legally important because, under California law, a person can only be arrested, charged, and convicted of a California DUI if they are “under the influence of a drug.” This means that a person’s physical or mental disabilities are impaired to such a degree that they no longer have the ability to drive with the caution characteristic or a sober person of ordinary prudence under the same or similar circumstances.
With the swab test only able to indicate the presence of one of the drugs listed above, a prosecutor must still prove that a person was not driving with the care of that of a sober person. This is done with officer testimony of poor driving patterns, failure of field sobriety tests, and visual symptoms of drug impairment.
Although many, including Mothers Against Drunk Driving, often forget, the mere presence of drugs in a driver’s system does not necessarily mean that they are driving under the influence. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active component in marijuana, for example, can stay in a person’s system for up to several weeks after the smoking or ingestion of marijuana. While, the THC may still be present, the person may no longer be “under the influence.”
San Diego began using the oral swab test, called Dräger 5000, after officials met with authorities in Colorado which legalized recreational marijuana in 2014.
Under San Diego protocol, law enforcement will only request the oral swab after they suspect that the driver might be under the influence of a drug. And before that, the officer must have probable cause to even stop the driver in the first place.
Like the preliminary screening alcohol test (PAS) test in DUI of alcohol cases, the oral swab test is also optional. And like the PAS test, it is never suggested that a driver voluntarily submit to the test. Never give law enforcement and prosecutors any more information than they already have.
Only after a person is arrested must they submit to a chemical test and if law enforcement suspects that a person was driving under the influence of a drug, they’ll have to take a blood test.
According to a study by the California Office of Traffic Safety, 38 percent of drivers killed in vehicle collisions during 2014 tested positive for either legal or illegal drugs. This is up six percent from 2013. While this may seem like a high number, testing positive does not necessarily mean that those drivers were actually under the influence and impaired by a drug.
Although drugged driving is and will always be a problem, we can’t continue to arrest people for driving for the mere presence of drugs in their system because presence does not mean impairment.