Field Testing for DUI Not That Easy

By Ned Wicker

Every once in a while you read the stories in the local paper, or see a piece on the evening news about a driver pulled over by police, who suspect a possible DUI situation. The field tests that are administered on the site are designed to screen for alcohol and drugs. According to those tests are voluntary and defense attorneys strongly advise that people not take them. It further states that just because somebody is determined to be over the legal blood alcohol level that does not mean they are impaired.

It�s an interesting game. People use drugs and alcohol, go out and drive, they get stopped, but is there really any proof positive that they were impaired? For example, a man gets pulled over and agrees to take the voluntary test. Be blows a .00 for alcohol. The police officer is sure something is wrong. On site, there is not a lot the officer can do to prove that the driver is impaired. To get an accurate reading, the arrested driver must go through a �zero tolerance� test, which is expensive and requires time. Urine tests are the easiest, but blood testing is more accurate in determining whether or not a person is �under the influence.� You can easily see that the costs are going to add up quickly.

For approximately $250.00, a toxicologist from Drug Detection Laboratories Inc. (DDL) of Sacramento, Calif., will do the test and give you a written report. Fees will vary from state-to-state, but DDL states in its web site, �Unfortunately, today, the majority of drug testing is poorly done and plagued with unreliable information.� With so many alleged DUI stops on our roads and highways, how is law enforcement supposed to keep up, conduct proper testing to ensure an accurate reading, and not get steamrolled by a knowledgeable and experienced defense attorney?

In previous blogs, we reported that former surgeon Mark Benson, who was involved in a car crash that killed three people and injured two others on April 25, did not appear to be impaired at the scene, but was tested and traces of several drugs were found in his system. Was he impaired? What level signifies impairment? How do the drugs interact with each other? The problem with Benson was that he was using prescription medication. If a driver is tested and found to be using crack cocaine, methamphetamine or some other illegal drug, the legal course of action seemingly is much clearer.

The presumption of innocence is vitally important to our system of justice in America, and yes, police and law enforcement must follow procedure. But with the glut of DUI arrests every year, especially those which might involve drug use, law enforcement has a tough assignment. In Wisconsin, a person can refuse the drug testing if it�s a first offense, but in subsequent offenses, the testing is done with or without consent. If a person refuses the test for a first offense, they are charged with refusing. The trouble is, law enforcement can do so much. They patrol our streets and highways, enforce the law, but the legal technicalities involved in actually getting a conviction are numerous. What does it mean to be impaired, especially by a legally prescribed medication?

With overcrowding in our prisons and jails, non-violent offenders are not a priority, and so probation and fines are handed out. That is frustrating for those who are responsible for enforcement. We want offenders off the roads, but we don�t necessarily know exactly what to do about it. I would submit to you that DUI is a violent offense, because the potential for bringing on serious harm or even death is dramatically increased. If I walk down the street carrying a loaded shotgun in my town, the police are going to want to know what I�m doing. The potential for violence is apparent. When people use or abuse drugs, then drive, the potential for a violent episode is apparent.

It�s difficult also because the DUI offender needs treatment, not necessarily incarceration, to prevent repeat offenses. People with two or more arrests and convictions need to break the cycle of addiction. It�s all too easy for people to plea to a lesser charge, such as driving too fast for conditions, or something other than DUI. That doesn�t help. It only leads to another incident, more strain on our police officers and the clogging of the courts. In the long run, treatment is the best answer.

The criminal justice system does the best it can, given the circumstances. Testing procedures are costly and time consuming. What really needs to change is the culture. People get a pass on DUI, compared to other offenses. That needs to change.

Ned Wicker is the Addictions Chaplain at Waukesha Memorial Hospital Lawrence Center.

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