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Driving Stoned: Specially Trained Cops On The Lookout For Drugged Drivers

A Chula Vista Police Department vehicle shown in this undated photo.

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

Above: A Chula Vista Police Department vehicle shown in this undated photo.

This is the second part of a three-part series on drugged driving. Click here for Part 1 and Part 3.

On Patrol In Chula Vista

Chula Vista Police Officer and drug recognition expert Raul Naranjo was working the night shift on a Friday.

In addition to his own patrol duties, Naranjo gets called out to assist other officers who have pulled someone over. He is specially trained to assess whether a driver is drug or alcohol-impaired, or both.

Early in his shift, he got a call about a car that ran some stop signs.

“The driver of that vehicle lost control, crashed and took off on foot westbound from the 800 block of Broadway, and now we have officers setting up a perimeter looking for him," Naranjo said, as he drove to the scene.

A few moments later, Naranjo stopped his car and got out.

“Somewhere right around here, he’s running toward this location. Right there, this apartment there? That’s where he’s at, somewhere in here,” Naranjo said as he pointed to a nearby apartment complex.

Officers quickly captured the man and hauled him into the station. They suspected he was drunk, but he also could be on something else. Naranjo arrived to evaluate him.

Nicholas Mcvicker,

Marijuana is now legal for recreational use in California and more people are driving high. Some specially trained police officers are on the road looking for them.

Questioning The Suspect

The man stood facing the wall. His hands were handcuffed behind him. The arresting officers stood a few feet away, filling out paperwork.

Naranjo stepped forward, and asked the man some questions.

“You can just put your back against the wall," Naranjo instructed him. "That’s fine. Now, before the officers started pursuing you, like where were you coming from?”

The man mumbled a response.

“Do you smoke marijuana?" Naranjo asked.

"I have to, for my knee," the man replied.

While Naranjo asked questions, he paid close attention to the man’s face, eyes and general demeanor. That is because each drug presents its own clues.

Naranjo jotted notes and put down his clipboard.

“I do smell the odor of an alcoholic beverage when you’re speaking," Naranjo said. "I do see your eyes are a little watery, they’re like bloodshot. And so, based on those observations, I’m going to ask you if you’re willing to perform a field sobriety test.”

The man agreed, and Naranjo put him through the paces.

“You see the tip of my pen? I need you to follow the tip of my pen only with your eyes without moving your head, okay?”

It does not take long before Naranjo has seen enough.

The Hammer Comes Down

“At this moment, I’m telling you that you’re also being placed under arrest for DUI," Naranjo told the man. "And now that you’ve been placed under arrest, also for DUI, you have an obligation under the implied consent law to provide a chemical sample for testing."

The man had his blood drawn by an on-call nurse at the station. After that, he was booked into jail.

Naranjo took the sample, put it in a special envelope, and attached a request to the lab to check the blood for both alcohol and marijuana.

Then he put the envelope in a locked box.

The Gold Standard

A blood test is the gold standard for determining if a person has alcohol or other drugs in their system. But blood tests are not done in the field. And there is no equivalent of a breathalyzer test for drugs like marijuana.

In fact, there is no legal limit for marijuana impairment in California. In other words, the state does not have a standard that determines when a person is deemed too stoned to drive safely.

The San Diego Police Department recently started using a device they say could make identifying drug-impaired drivers a little easier. The Drager DrugTest 5000 is a screening device that tests saliva for the presence of drugs. The machine can identify seven of the most widely abused drugs..

For instance, the device can indicate when someone has THC in their system. That is the psychoactive compound that gives marijuana users a high. But the machine does not indicate the amount that is in a person’s system.

San Diego Police Officer and drug recognition expert John Perdue admits the Drager is not a perfect tool.

“A good example would be THC," he said. "Just because it detects THC, doesn’t mean the person is under the influence. It’s still based on what the DRE, or the investigating officer, sees during the evaluation.”

A Judgement Call

So for the time being, stopping drug-impaired drivers is primarily a judgement call.

Officer Naranjo says he has pulled people over that refuse to answer questions or even look at him. They merely hand him their driver’s license, registration and proof of insurance.

“Sometimes I’m given a very, very small window of opportunity to get all dialed in and make a decision on whether this person that I stopped is impaired for the purposes of being out here, not driving his vehicle safely and endangering members of our community,” he explained.

As more drugged drivers hit the road, there just are not enough officers like Naranjo and Perdue around.

According to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, only about one percent of police officers nationwide are certified drug recognition experts.

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