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What is DRE Drug Impairment Protocol?

What is the DRE Drug Impairment Protocol?

The Drug Recognition Expert (DRE) program is a law enforcement procedure designed to identify drug impairment in drivers, similar to how field sobriety tests identify alcohol impairment. DRE officers are trained to recognize the signs and symptoms associated with drug use, and can conduct a standardized 12-step evaluation to determine if a driver is impaired by drugs.

Overview of the DRE Protocol

The DRE protocol involves three phases of training for officers to become certified DREs:

  • Phase I – Pre-school training (16 hours)
  • Phase II – DRE School (56 hours)
  • Phase III – Field certification (Approx. 40-60 hours)

Once trained and certified, DRE officers can conduct a 12-step evaluation when they suspect a driver is impaired by drugs. The 12 steps are:

  1. Breath alcohol test
  2. Interview of arresting officer
  3. Preliminary examination
  4. Examinations of eyes
  5. Divided attention tests
  6. Examination of vital signs
  7. Dark room examinations
  8. Examination for muscle tone
  9. Check for injection sites
  10. Subject’s statements and other observations
  11. Opinion of evaluator
  12. Toxicological examination

Based on the evaluation, the DRE officer forms an opinion about whether the driver is impaired, and if so, the category of drugs causing the impairment. The DRE officer can then request appropriate toxicological testing to obtain scientific evidence to corroborate the DRE opinion.

History and Development

The DRE program was developed in the 1970s by the Los Angeles Police Department to identify drug-impaired drivers. The program expanded nationwide throughout the 1980s and 1990s. In 2023, there are over 8,000 DRE officers certified nationally across all 50 states (IACP).

The DRE protocol was standardized by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). NHTSA researched the validity of DRE officer opinions for detecting drug impairment and found the evaluations to be reliable when administered by properly trained officers (PMC).

Training and Certification of DRE Officers

To become a certified DRE officer, candidates must complete all three phases of training (NHTSA):

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Phase I – Pre-school Training

Phase I is 16 hours of preliminary classroom training on the effects and signs of the seven drug categories. Trainees learn about the DRE drug evaluation and certification procedures.

Phase II – DRE School

Phase II is 56 hours of intensive classroom and hands-on training. Trainees learn how to conduct the 12-step DRE evaluation and document their assessments. They must pass a final knowledge exam.

Phase III – Field Certification

Phase III requires the trainee to complete field evaluations under the supervision of DRE instructors. Trainees must conduct a minimum of 12 supervised DRE evaluations, identify subjects under the influence, and obtain toxicology samples. The instructors review each evaluation for accuracy.

Once Phase III is complete, the trainee becomes a certified DRE officer, valid for two years. DRE officers must complete recertification training every two years to maintain their credentials.

Criticisms and Limitations

While the DRE protocol is a standardized process, some limitations and criticisms exist:

  • Lack of accepted research validating the accuracy of DRE opinions
  • Potential for false positives identifying drug categories
  • Limited conclusions (7 drug categories)
  • Subjectivity during evaluations
  • Officer bias

Additional research is still needed to scientifically validate the accuracy of DRE evaluations. However, the DRE program remains the most comprehensive process available for law enforcement to identify drug-impaired driving.

The Role of DRE in Impaired Driving Cases

The DRE evaluation can provide important evidence in impaired driving cases. Steps 1-11 provide observable signs of impairment documented by the DRE officer. The DRE opinion identifies a category of drugs causing the impairment.

Toxicology testing in Step 12 provides the scientific evidence to confirm drug presence and impairment. However, the DRE opinion is formed independently before toxicology results are known.

Therefore, the DRE protocol provides both observational evidence and toxicology to demonstrate driver impairment. This can be used to establish probable cause for arrest and strengthen prosecution in court.

The Future of DRE

Drug-impaired driving continues to be a major traffic safety issue. As more states legalize marijuana, there is an increased need to identify drug impairment in drivers.

Some future developments for DRE may include:

  • Expanded research on accuracy of DRE evaluations
  • Additional training on emerging drugs like synthetic opioids
  • Incorporating technology like oral fluid testing
  • Increased number of certified DRE officers

While not without limitations, the DRE protocol represents the best current practice for law enforcement to identify and remove drug-impaired drivers from the road.


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