Under the influence: How much is too much when it comes to driving under the influence?
In its most basic form, a DUI is driving under the influence of anything. Whether it is alcohol from a party or sleeping medication that hasn’t quite worn off yet, impaired driving can be lethal.
“Impairment is impairment,” said Rusty Cooper, deputy chief of Kingman Police Department. “It can lead to being hurt or killed.”
Understanding DUIs begins with understanding all of the different kinds of drugs.
The seven drug categories
Dan Spivey, a drug recognition expert with KPD, has undergone hours of training in order to evaluate the effects drugs have on people. He has been trained to see the different kinds of impairment different drugs can have.
There are seven different categories of drugs which all affect people differently.
The first category is depressants, which are things like alcohol and anti-anxiety pills.
“About 10-15 new drugs are added to that list every month,” Spivey said.
There are also stimulants which is methamphetamine, cocaine or Ritalin, a prescription drug used to help those with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity disorder focus. Both stimulants and depressants can be illicit or prescribed.
Hallucinogens are another category. In Arizona there are native hallucinogens such as devil’s trumpet and peyote. If used for any other purposes beyond Native American ceremonies, peyote is illegal. Other hallucinogens are mushrooms, LSD and MDMA.
Dissociative anesthetics are drugs that dull pain. Sometimes these drugs can have medical purposes, and sometimes they might not. There are also narcotic analgesics such as opioids, which can be prescribed or illicit.
The sixth category is inhalants. This is any vapor emitting substances like paint thinner or gas.
“Even canned whipped cream,” Spivey said. “That propellant is an inhalant.”
Inhalants are short-lived drugs with long-term effects. The highs only last about 15 minutes, but inhalants can cause permanent brain damage.
And the final category is the cannabis category. This category extends far beyond just marijuana. It also includes hashish, hash oil and marinol – a synthetic drug which can be used for chemotherapy patients. Hash oil is a derivative of marijuana where the flower and the leaves are soaked in kerosene then crushed. This is to make the THC content higher.
“It can triple the THC content,” Spivey said. “It’s a process designed for greater effect.”
There are roadside sobriety tests designed to assist officers’ investigations, and there are a number of officers in the area who have advanced roadside impaired driving enforcement training. Spivey, an ARIDE instructor, said that officers with ARIDE training are slightly below the DRE level of training. ARIDE officers see signs and symptoms of impairment and learn to use a matrix that will help them recognize the drugs associated with those symptoms.
Making a traffic stop
“Impaired driving starts at the traffic stop,” Cooper said. “Officers see cues and clues … which can start as soon as they see the vehicle.”
These cues and clues can be certain actions like wide turns, swerving and misjudging distances.
“When impaired, your ability to divide your attention becomes extremely taxed,” Spivey said.
Spivey said a sober person takes approximately 1.5 seconds to process information and make adjustments accordingly. A driver in an altered state due to marijuana could take 2 seconds, which at first doesn’t seem like much. However, that half-second could be the difference between hitting the brakes as soon as a child follows a ball into the street, or after the child is already in the street.
Depending on the cues, an officer can see the impairment even before they make the traffic stop, Spivey said.
After a subject is pulled over, the next key part is driver contact. With marijuana and alcohol, the smell is usually a big indicator. If an officer can smell marijuana, it’s a reasonable suspicion that there is marijuana in the car, Cooper said.
There are questions that officers ask, and depending on the driver’s responses can cue other questions. From there, the officer can continue talking to try to decipher what has impaired this driver, let the person go if it isn’t something dangerous to the driver or others, or take the driver in for further processing.
“Everybody’s behavior is unique to the different drugs,” Cooper said. “But impaired is still impaired.”
Sometimes different drugs can cause overlapping effects. Evaluations check everything from pulse to eye dilation in order to figure out which drugs are affecting someone’s system.
“Investigators look at all the information,” Spivey said. “They gather information such as signs and symptoms of the subject.”
Depending on the kind of substance, there can be several different charges an impaired driver can face.
If it’s alcohol, it depends on the level of blood alcohol content. In Arizona the “presumptive level” – the level of alcohol in the blood where a person is presumed impaired – is a BAC of .08. For someone who weighs 140 pounds, that’s about two drinks. Two drinks don’t seem like much, but even at the lowest level of intoxication, driving skills can be impaired. If the BAC is .15 it’s considered an extreme DUI, and then anything higher than .2 is a super extreme DUI.
From there, additional charges can be applied depending on the circumstances from aggravated assault to felony criminal damage charges. If any passenger is under 15 years old, there can also be felony endangerment charges added onto that. And these charges can also apply when the driver is under the influence of drugs, Spivey said.
Arizona currently has no presumptive level of impairment for marijuana. However, other states which have legalized recreational marijuana have set levels varying levels. Washington has a presumptive level of 5 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood as the base level.
In order to test for marijuana, there are three possible options, Spivey said. Officers can ask for urine, hair or blood, though the blood draw is slightly more common. If an individual refuses the officer’s request, their license could be subject to suspension due to the implied consent law. This implied consent law states that if someone is arrested for a DUI they are willing to submit to breathe, blood and urine tests, Cooper said.
If an individual does refuse, the officer must obtain a search warrant from the magistrate on duty. Spivey said there is a 24-hour number given to officers and the warrants can be either verbally given over the phone or can be in person depending on the judge’s discretion.
“Sometimes (getting a warrant) takes 15 minutes or less,” Spivey said.
While waiting for the results of a blood draw, the individual can be booked into jail with a DUI to the slightest degree.
“We don’t want them back out there driving, so booking them is sometimes the safest option,” Spivey said.
After the results are in, the offender can get a secondary charge of DUI drugs and additional charges related to the drug in their system. Officers can also request criminal charges be added depending on the circumstances, Spivey said.
All of this is done as quickly and efficiently as possible.
“We are trying to be the most efficient because we know their liver is destroying the evidence,” Spivey said.
Overall, there are only about 100 to 120 blood draws for DUI cases per year, which isn’t KPD alone. The four trained phlebotomists at KPD also work with Mohave County Sheriff’s Office and Department of Public Services.
“The part we are committed to is keeping the roadways safe,” Cooper said. “Any time impairment happens, it’s dangerous.”
Cooper said KPD is not sneaky about any of the DUI enforcement. There is a mobile command center out on major holidays, officers do walk-throughs of bars and make their presence known.
“KPD is very aggressive in locating and removing impaired drivers from the road,” Spivey said. “All (the agencies) are willing to work together to prevent any tragic loss of life. It happens far too frequently to be comfortable.”
Spivey and Cooper both encourage people to make good decisions. If someone has been drinking, call a friend, cab, Uber or Lyft, whatever it takes to stay away from the wheel.
“It’s irresponsibility on those drivers’ parts,” Spivey said. “It’s very irresponsible and selfish. Our families use those same roads.”