Law and Science of Detecting Drug Impairment in Arizona

by Aaron Black • June 27, 2019
Drug ImpairmentDetermining if a driver in Arizona is impaired by drugs is not an easy matter. The realm of drugs – both prescription and illicit – has the chemical ability to cause impairment. Even some of the over-the-counter cold remedies warn not to operate heavy machinery when taking the medicine.

Law enforcement, however, is trying hard to achieve drugged driving convictions in Arizona and is training officers on how to recognize when someone is impaired by drugs.

Arizona’s DRE Certification Program

Arizona established its DRE program, Drug Recognition Experts, to train and certify law officers to tell the difference between medical or mental disorders and the influence of a drug in impaired driving investigations. The DRE officers are summoned to the scene to render their opinion.

The evaluation DRE officers perform consists of various actions: Interview, the condition of eye pupil size, pulse rate, interrogation to determine what drug the suspect is on, if muscles are ridged or flaccid, looking for injection sites, and a toxicological examination.

DRE certification is awarded after the successful completion of the program’s 88 hours of instruction in three training phases.
  • In phase one the trainee begins to learn the procedures and techniques of evaluating a person’s drug impairment.
  • The phase two class teaches drug physiology, drug effects, and the legal considerations involved.
  • Phase three is the field certification under the oversight of certified instructors that is conducted during a span of 60 to 90 days of evaluating those who are suspected of drug impairment.
The DRE students must also pass a comprehensive written examination to achieve the designation as “expert.” DRE officers are required to recertify every two years.

Technological Advances for determining Drug Impairment

A breathalyzer test can gauge if someone is driving while intoxicated on alcohol but it can’t detect drugs - yet. The Oakland, California-based Hound Labs, Inc., announced in August 2018 that it developed the “world’s first breathalyzer” that purports to accurately measure “recent marijuana use.” The company says the machine is hypersensitive and can detect THC, the psychoactive chemical in marijuana.

In April 2018 Washington State University announced its researchers were working on a “cannabis consumption detector” to allow police to test drivers for THC in the field.

Meanwhile Arizona law officers use blood and urine tests to determine THC levels.

With several states decriminalizing marijuana use and others, including Arizona, allowing marijuana to help chronic pain and certain other ailments, law enforcement is concerned about motorists driving while high on THC.

The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) in conducting a National Roadside Survey in 2013-14 found that 20 percent of drivers who were surveyed tested positive for “potentially impairing drugs.”

The NHTSA listed these drugs and their impact:
  • Alcohol and marijuana slows coordination, judgment and reaction times
  • Cocaine and methamphetamine causes aggressive and reckless behavior
  • Combining drugs amplifies the impairment of each drug
  • Prescription drugs can cause extreme drowsiness and dizziness

Arizona’s Drug Impairment Law

Prohibiting the operation of a vehicle while impaired to the “slightest degree” by any drug is Arizona Revised Statute §28-1381(a)(1). You don’t have to be in motion to be arrested. Simply being in “actual physical control” of the vehicle, such as parked on the side of the road sleeping is sufficient for an arrest. The law also addresses the metabolite of a drug, which is what is left after the body processes the drug.

A conviction under this statute is a class 1 misdemeanor, the most serious of the misdemeanor offenses, can result in some time in jail, fines and surcharges, successfully completing a drug education program and a term of probation after the sentence is served.

The difference in penalties between drug and alcohol impairment is that someone who is impaired by a drug faces revocation of their driver’s license for a longer time - one year.

Although medical marijuana is legal in Arizona that doesn’t mean you can drive when you’re using it.

What should I do if I’ve been pulled over by Police?

It’s crucial when you’re stopped by police in Phoenix, AZ or surrounding communities to say nothing. Admit nothing. At the outset when the officer starts questioning you just politely say you are invoking your Constitutional right to remain silent and to have an attorney present. Taking the “Fifth” stops the on-sight interrogation.

Drug Impairment Defenses

Every drug impairment case has its own particular set of facts. So the defense’s theory bases its case on challenging that information, as well as flaws in the police procedures and the favorable evidence that the defense finds in its independent investigation into the charges.

The science in drug detection is critical. Many scientists have found fault with the detection process. The presence of drugs in a person’s system doesn’t necessarily mean impairment. For example, one person’s metabolism for processing a drug can be different from someone else which can cause jurors to harbor reasonable doubt and acquit the defendant.

The common defenses in drug impairment cases include:
  • The officer didn’t have sufficient probable cause to stop the vehicle
  • The drug detection method or device used to determine impairment was faulty
  • Authorities drew blood without first securing a warrant after you refused to give blood
  • In cases involving prescription drugs you obeyed the instructions of the doctor
  • DRE officers didn’t have sufficient expertise in prescription drugs and a physician expert defense witness can challenge the officer’s testing result
  • Authorities violated your Constitutional rights

Free Confidential Legal Advice

If you or a loved one are charged with drugged driving don’t make any decisions until you talk to a lawyer.

As an experienced criminal defense attorney I will assess your legal situation and review your options in a free and confidential telephonic conversation. Simply contact Phoenix Criminal Defense Attorney Aaron Black Law or call (480)729-1623 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I’ll promptly respond unless I’m in court.

Aaron defends those who are charged with crimes in all Arizona city, state and federal courts.


About the Author

Aaron Black is the founder and sole attorney of the Law Office of Aaron Black. Located in Phoenix, Arizona, his DUI and criminal defense law firm provides legal services to people who have received felony or misdemeanor charges from the state.

Aaron has developed a strong interest in defending people who have been arrested and received criminal charges for driving under the influence. With his professionalism and knowledge of Arizona DUI and criminal law, he has acted as a check and balance on the police, prosecution and courts and has protected a great number of his clients from excessive and unfair sentencing.

Along with DUI defense, Aaron handles a range of other criminal matters, including aggravated assault, burglary, domestic violence, drug possession, drug trafficking, fraud defense, insurance fraud, sex crimes and white-collar crime.

After graduating college in 2003 from the University of Arizona, Aaron decided to pursue a law degree. He followed a family long tradition and went to the University of South Dakota School of Law where he pursued his goal of becoming a criminal defense lawyer.

After passing the Arizona and South Dakota bar exams, Aaron joined the Maricopa County Office of the Public Defender where he defended hundreds of people charged with serious criminal offenses. His work as a public defender helped him sharpen his litigation skills and gave him a unique insight into the Arizona criminal justice system.

Over the course of his 15-year legal career, Aaron has spent a considerable amount of time in both Arizona justice, municipal, state and federal courts. He has argued over 50 jury trials, tried over 100 bench trials and has become one of the highest-rated criminal and DUI defense attorneys in Phoenix and the surrounding areas. He has received a 10/10 rating from the legal directory Avvo because of his legal background and successful case record. Since 2014, he has received the Super Lawyer rating for his work as a Phoenix DUI and criminal defense attorney.

You can review Aaron’s Attorney Bio page for more information about his background, education and experience as a Phoenix DUI and criminal defense attorney.
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