CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin is proposing changing state law to make it clear that police officers can test drivers for drugs just as they test them for alcohol.
The legislation would explicitly permit officers to test for drugs. The current law outlines only that authorities have the right to test for alcohol. While law enforcement authorities welcome the proposal, they say that proving a driver is impaired by drugs remains difficult.
When people are arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence, they usually are taken to a station or a precinct for further testing. If they have been drinking and fail a chemical breath test, the case is usually pretty straightforward. But if they are on drugs and pass a breath test — which tests only for alcohol — it becomes difficult to prove that they are impaired.
“It’s not that the police can’t do anything,” said Bob Tipton, the state’s director of highway safety. “They just don’t have tools in their tool belt to deal with drugged driving.”
According to federal figures, one in 10 adults in West Virginia has a drug problem, and that state has the nation’s highest rate of drug overdoses.
About 1,000 drivers were arrested statewide on suspicion of drugged driving last year — accounting for about 10 percent of all DUI arrests, Tipton said.
If drivers refuse to take a test that checks the level of alcohol in their system, it’s the same as failing a test when introduced as evidence in court. Tomblin’s legislation, introduced Friday, applies the same standard to drug tests.
It’s more difficult to determine whether there are drugs in someone’s system than alcohol. Drug testing usually requires more intrusive procedures than breath tests, such as blood or urine tests.
“There’s no test that is not somewhat invasive,” said Joe Barki, the Brooke County prosecutor and a former state trooper. “For alcohol, you can do a breath test. Drugs don’t show up the same way in a breath test. You have to get either a blood or urine test and you can’t force somebody to give you a blood sample, you’d have to get a search warrant in order to get that type of information, which takes time, which decreases the likelihood that something will show up.”
In concert with the new legislation, Tipton said the state police will begin specially training certain officers to serve as experts in drug recognition. These officers would administer examinations, similar to what a nurse might do, to help establish that a driver is impaired. The officer would check things like pulse rate, blood pressure and pupil dilation. If the officer determines that the driver is impaired, they could proceed to further blood and urine testing.
“It’s not intrusive like, ‘Go into a room, put on a hospital gown,’” Tipton said. “He’s doing more things to test your reflexes and reactions.”
Tipton said that about 20 officers probably would be trained to do the examinations in the first year and a half after the program is introduced.
Sgt. Michael Baylous, a spokesman for the state police, recalls from his time in the field that it was often difficult to prove impairment and said he welcomed any changes that would make drugged driving easier to prove.
“I remember one guy who had been huffing gasoline, and he was obviously impaired but when you have him blow into an Intoximeter it doesn’t show anything,” Baylous said.
Tomblin first announced the legislation at his State of the State address on Wednesday, saying he wanted to make it clear that officers had more power so that when “drivers who are under the influence of drugs are pulled over, they can be properly identified, tested, and removed from our roadways.”
At Tomblin’s request, the legislation has been introduced in both the Senate and the House of Delegates and has been assigned to committees.