Catching drivers who are stoned behind the wheel

TRI-CITIES, Wash. -- Catching drivers guilty of DUI takes a lot more work than you might think. It's not as simple as testing someone for alcohol. 8% of all traffic stops are drug related. And, it takes specialized officers to decide whether a driver is too high to drive.

In one year, 20,000 drivers here in Washington are arrested for being behind the wheel and under the influence of drugs.

The recent marijuana law is a new obstacle for troopers to catch these drivers. Smelling pot alone is no longer enough for officers to search a car.

"They can be in the possession of marijuana. Doesn't mean they've smoked it," Sgt. Lattin from Kennewick Police tells KEPR.

When it comes to these cases, state patrol utilizes a drug recognition expert or D.R.E. Troopers like Oscar Garcia are called to the scene to determine whether someone is too high to drive.

"We check heart rate, blood pressure, we do al that stuff so we have all these tools. A lot of nurses tease us saying we're a nurse with a gun," Garcia explains.

D.R.E's require special training and are in demand. But, some departments here in the Tri Cities are in better shape than others. The Pasco and Kennewick Police Departments have two D-R-Es.
Richland has four. The Benton county Sheriff's Office has just one deputy. And Trooper Garcia is the only local D-R-E on the State Patrol.
Depending on his availability, a driver suspected of using drugs might have to wait hours to be examined. Long enough to get sober.

"When I get there and I evaluate them, I can still see signs that they're under the influence, but I don't see a lot of impairment," Trooper Garcia says.

D.R.E's are far and few between, but police say it helps being so close to different agencies. They can call any D.R.E in the area.

Sgt. Lattin says, "In our community, in both counties, we have a large number of DREs and somebody will answer their phone."

State patrol reimburses officers called in for overtime to work these cases. Trooper Garcia says it's worth it to catch drivers who shouldn't be on the road.