Capt. George Crum can pick out meth users by the clench in their jaws. He can detect heroin in the slow pulse of an addict, and he knows that someone on cocaine might count one-one-thousand to 30 in about 10 seconds.
Crum works as a drug-recognition expert for the Fullerton police. He’s part of a growing effort to get drugged drivers off the road – an effort that involves police, prosecutors and high technology, and has quietly made Orange County a model in California.
The push to get drugged drivers off the road has come with its own set of challenges. A street cop, for example, may recognize the blood-shot eyes and boozy smell of a hard drinker, but maybe not the slow response of a meth user’s eyes to light. A prosecutor can convict a drunken driver with one pivotal piece of evidence, a .08 percent blood-alcohol level – but there’s no such legal limit for marijuana or Xanax.
The state’s Office of Traffic Safety has backed Orange County’s efforts with hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants. Most recently, it awarded $480,000 late last month to train more police officers as drug experts, help the Orange County crime lab process drug evidence and send prosecutors into court to fight for convictions.
Orange County has been “more aggressively out front” in going after drugged-driving cases, said Chris Cochran, a spokesman for the Office of Traffic Safety. “Everybody recognizes the problem,” he added, but Orange County has been “the most together on it.”
The percentage of California traffic deaths that involve drugs has grown steadily in recent years, statistics kept by the Department of Motor Vehicles show. Drugs were involved in just over a quarter of crash deaths in 2010, the most recent year available, up from 11.5 percent in 2000.
In Orange County, prosecutors filed more drugged-driving cases in the first nine months of 2012 than in all of 2010. The Orange County Crime Lab is experimenting with new ways to detect drugs. But it starts with officers on the street like George Crum.
Exams are thorough
Crum is one of more than 150 specially trained drug-recognition officers in Orange County; the recent state grant will send that number past 200. If he pulls you over and thinks you’re impaired, you won’t get away with the usual walk-a-line and touch-your-nose impairment tests.
Crum will take your pulse. He’ll check your blood pressure. He’ll shine a light in your eyes and watch for clues – grinding teeth, a clenched jaw, rigid posture – that might point to drug use. His exams can take more than half an hour.
Often, it’s another officer who makes the stop and then radios for Crum or another drug expert when something doesn’t seem right. Still, Crum says, “quite frankly, we’re missing it. Untrained officers are missing people driving under the influence” of drugs.
A recent survey of drivers on California roads found that nearly one in seven had illegal or prescription drugs in their systems that could make them dangerous behind the wheel. That was nearly twice the rate of drivers found to have even trace amounts of alcohol.
The survey, though, did not address whether the drivers had enough drugs or alcohol in their systems to be impaired. Crum, also, cannot put a number on the level of drugs in someone’s body; he and the other drug experts focus on the unusual behaviors that suggest a driver is on something. The blood tests that prove it happen at the Orange County Crime Lab.
The blood samples arrive every morning in manila packets sent by officers in the field. The forensic scientists who work there – most with degrees in chemistry or biology – test the vials of blood first for alcohol. A .08 percent reading or above means no further testing is necessary, the driver was legally under the influence.
But blood samples that test below that threshold move on to the next level of testing, which looks for drugs. A machine takes a drip of blood and mixes it with solutions that react to the presence of an array of legal and illegal drugs. Dull yellow means it’s found something.
The tests take several hours each, and it can take several days to get a report back to police and prosecutors. “It’s not quite like ‘CSI,'” said Jennifer Harmon, the assistant director of the crime lab. “It takes a little bit longer.”
But most of the tests still can’t say how much of a drug is in a driver’s blood, only that it’s there. That has tripped up juries before, who question whether the mere presence of a drug – say, Ambien or Vicodin – is enough to find someone guilty of driving under the influence.
The lab is about to start using a powerful new machine that runs blood samples through tubes as fine as hairs and looks for the chemical fingerprints of different drugs. The $350,000 machine – paid for with one of the Traffic Safety grants – then goes one step further: It can measure the concentration of a drug.
The lab plans to start using the machine in February to test for prescription medications such as Valium, Xanax and Ambien. It has two other machines on order and a goal of running all suspected-DUI blood samples through them within two years. That would give prosecutors a number – a measure of how much drug is in a driver’s system – to put in front of a jury in every case.
Deputy District Attorney Susan Price had no such hard-and-fast number in 2008, when she began work on cases against two drivers who hit people while on prescription drugs. One of the drivers killed a 14-year-old boy in Huntington Beach; the other killed a mother on a bicycle ride with her autistic son in Seal Beach.
“How am I going to prove drug intoxication in these two cases?” she remembers thinking. “How do you go about educating your jurors about the impairing effect of prescription drugs and how (they) affect the ability of the driver to operate his or her vehicle?”
Price won both cases; the drivers had been so erratic, their behaviors so unusual, that the juries didn’t need blood-level tests to know something was wrong with them. But the experience made Price realize that drug cases needed more attention.
She applied for the first state grant to go after drugged drivers, $640,000 awarded in 2011 that helped Orange County begin to put together its multi-agency effort. Part of that grant allowed four deputy district attorneys to focus more on drug-related DUI cases.
Statistics from the District Attorney’s Office show that DUI-drug cases were up in 2012, along with convictions. Prosecutors had filed more than 1,500 cases through September, and won convictions in 95 percent of them. In all of 2010, the District Attorney’s Office filed about 1,400 DUI-drug cases and won convictions in 92 percent of them.
“I believe that drug-impaired driving is the biggest threat to the safety of residents in this county and the state,” Price said. “This is, hands down, the most dangerous behavior facing the drivers on the roadway.”