Ennis Police Chief puts drug recognition expert training to use

Madison County ranks high in a number of categories such as fishing and other outdoor recreation opportunities, but also in areas not so appealing. The county is eighth in the state for auto accidents involving marijuana. Ennis Police Chief Scott Newell hopes his unique training will help the county drop in those ranks.

“We are so glad to have him right here in our county,” Madison County DUI Task Force director Lynn Lowder said.

More commonly, impaired driving is thought of solely involving excessive alcohol consumption, but it also includes illegal drug use and prescription drug abuse. Newell, with his Drug Recognition Expert training, knows the effects these drugs can have on a person who is driving a vehicle. He is one of the few trained DREs in the entire state. Drug-impaired drivers exhibit many of the same indicators as alcohol-impaired drivers, according to Newell.

According to a 2009 Fatality Analysis Reporting System study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Montana is the second highest state with known marijuana use in fatal crashes. Only Alaska has a higher known level of marijuana involvement in fatal crashes. Marijuana use was about 13 percent higher in the years 2007, 2008 and 2009 for Montana passenger vehicle drivers in fatal crashes. The marijuana-impaired drivers tend to be younger and a high percentage of them do not have a valid driver’s license as well as having a lower percentage of safety belt use.

Newell said DRE school is an extensive two-week classroom training with up to three written exams a day during that time.

“Officers must memorize the drug categories and the effects each drug category has on the human body,” Newell said. “After two weeks of classroom training, the officers are flown to either Phoenix or Los Angeles to conduct a minimum of 12 field evaluations on drug impaired persons in front of a certified DRE instructor before taking a final written exam.”

After passing the test, a DRE is certified for two years. There are currently 72 officers in the state of Montana that are certified. Being the only one in Madison County, Newell is called all over the region to evaluate suspected drug-impaired drivers. This year, he was called to Yellowstone National Park to perform a DRE evaluation. The driver in that case was arrested, charged and convicted in court in Wyoming for driving while under the influence of drugs. Wyoming reported six fatal crashes involving passenger vehicles and marijuana in 2009 while Montana had 28. Other neighboring states, North Dakota and Idaho, reported two and one respectively.

The state of Montana uses a standardized training program through the U.S. Department of Transportation National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for DUI detection and apprehension. The training consists of three levels – standardized field sobriety testing; advanced roadside impaired driving enforcement, and drug recognition expert. When law enforcement officers attend the Montana Law Enforcement Academy, they receive 40 hours of training that includes standardized field sobriety testing and breath-alcohol testing certification. After being in the field for a couple of years, officers attend a two-day class known as advanced roadside impaired driving enforcement or ARIDE. To pass ARIDE, officers must obtain an 80 percent score or higher on the written exam. To be considered for DRE school, an officer must score 90 percent or higher on the ARIDE final exam. Drug recognition expert instructors teach the ARIDE classes and select potential candidates for DRE school. A DRE must be an active sworn law enforcement officer.

Newell gets the call when breath alcohol testing shows that an impaired driver is impaired by something other than alcohol. The DRE determines if the driver is impaired or if it is a medical rule out. Flathead, Yellowstone and Missoula counties were the top three where marijuana was identified in blood tests of drivers involved in fatal crashes, according the 2009 FARS study. Eight counties had four or more marijuana involved fatal crashes in the 2007-2009 timespan. Madison County made that list with four crashes. Three involved passenger vehicles and one involved a motorcycle.

Legislation passed this session in Helena to include revisions of DUI laws for Tetrahydrocannabinol or marijuana. After some revision and discussion, the bill passed the House 80-18 and Senate 48-2 on third reading.

“For a DRE, a drug is defined as any substance that when taken into the human body can impair the ability of the person to operate a motor vehicle safely,” Newell said. “Many people are indifferent to drug impaired driving because the focus both historically and in popular media has mainly been on alcohol.”

Newell said he hopes that emphasis changes.

“It is time to change the way we think about DUI. The emphasis should be on how we as a culture see traffic safety,” he said. “We should think of a motor vehicle as a three to four thousand pound bullet moving down the highway. DUI, whether with drugs or alcohol, is a violent crime with tragic and predictable results. It’s something that is entirely preventable.”

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