Red Deer RCMP Const. Lee Watt demostrates a roadside sobriety test at the detachment on Tuesday. Watt is one of four drug recognition experts at the detachment. Const. Liam Shiels played the bad guy who tries to walk a straight line.

Drug recognition experts look to take more impaired drivers off the streets



A police officer only needs “mere suspicion” that a driver has drugs in his system before conducting roadside standardized field sobriety tests.

Should the person perform poorly on the tests and alcohol has been ruled out, he or she could be arrested and taken back to the station to undergo more tests by drug recognition experts (DREs).

This new expertise on the Red Deer City RCMP force is something officers say will take more impaired drivers off the streets and ultimately make the roads safer for everyone.

City officers demonstrated standard roadside sobriety and drug evaluation testing for media on Tuesday at the Red Deer North Detachment.

Four Red Deer police officers are now trained in drug recognition and certified by the International Association of Police Chiefs through the RCMP.

They are able to identify drugs within seven categories such as hallucinogens, depressants, stimulants, cannabis and inhalants after performing a battery of tests.

Cpl. Mike LaBelle, one of the city’s four drug recognition experts, said there is a critical need for them in Red Deer and Central Alberta.

He said police are finding more people impaired by drugs or a combination of drugs and alcohol than traditionally impaired by alcohol.

“To have those extra tools, to have those four officers, on the road gives us the opportunity to capture, investigate and charge people with impaired driving so we can make the streets of Red Deer a much safer place,” said LaBelle.

Before drug recognition experts, there wasn’t much officers could do to confirm their suspicions of a driver impaired by something other than alcohol.

In a situation where the suspected impaired driver injured others and himself, police could demand the suspect’s blood or order his hospital records. If the tests came back with drugs in the system, the suspect would then be charged.

Now the hope is with more officers with special training, there will be more investigations and convictions.

There are 58 DREs in Alberta. Last year, 135 evaluations were conducted across Alberta.

Between June 2013 and June 2014, there were 191 impaired driving charges including 150 alcohol impaired, 15 drug and 26 refusals in Red Deer. If RCMP have determined that a driver is impaired and they refuse to provide a breath sample, they still face the same charges and consequences as other impaired drivers.

Sgt. Ian Brooks of the Edmonton Police Service said as the program continues to grow, he expects to see the number of arrests increase as more officers are trained. Brooks said, for example, in Edmonton two DREs have conducted seven evaluations since they received their certification in June.

“I think those numbers are a little more telling,” he said. “Once we have more people in the field capable of administering these tests, completing these investigations, (then) the numbers will likely be on par what we see with conventional alcohol impaired people.”

Once a suspected impaired driver is brought back to the detachment, the drug recognition expert will perform a 45-minute examination consisting of an interview, physical co-ordination tests, blood pressure, pulse rate and other clinical tests.

Following the process, the DRE will form an opinion of what drug category or categories the person has taken.

The officer can then demand a fluid sample such as urine or blood. Then the sample is sent to the laboratory to confirm the drug’s presence. The turnaround is about 60 days.

“When that comes back and confirms the drug category that we called, we will charge them with impaired driving,” said LaBelle. “We will suspend that person’s licence immediately until his court proceeding is complete. We will also seize their vehicle.”

The mere presence of a drug in the sample is not sufficient to charge a person with being impaired by a drug. The evaluation must show impairment, signs and symptoms consistent with one or more drug categories, and the evaluator’s findings must be supported by the toxicology report.

Some 8,600 people in Alberta each year are convicted of impaired driving.

Red Deer RCMP receive about three dozen calls each week from residents reporting suspected impaired drivers. The police ask residents to report impaired drivers by calling 911 with the licence plate, description of vehicle and direction of travel.

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