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Drug Recognition Experts May Be Prone To Their Own Biases

This article looks at why drug recognition experts are not a reliable way of catching “stoned” drivers.

While Iowa is not one of the states that has made recreational or medical marijuana legal, its neighbors, Minnesota and Illinois, both permit medical marijuana usage. That means many drivers could find themselves pulled over on Iowa's highways with marijuana in their systems. As such, drugged driving from marijuana is a pressing issue in the state. However, while enforcing drug DUI laws may sound straightforward, the truth is it is anything but.

Why marijuana DUI laws don't make sense

Many states that have legalized marijuana have decided to tackle the problem of drug DUIs similarly to how they tackle alcohol DUI. They have often set a chemical threshold of between 2 and 5 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood as the benchmark for determining when an individual is too impaired by marijuana to drive. THC is a psychoactive chemical compound in marijuana that causes people to feel "stoned" or "high".

However, this threshold is not based on any reliable science for determining impairment. Whereas a person who drives with a blood-alcohol concentration level above 0.08 can be assumed to be impaired, the same cannot be said for somebody driving with more than 5 nanograms of THC in their system. Habitual marijuana users, for example, often develop a resistance to the drug, meaning they can have a high THC level but not suffer any impairment. A novice user, meanwhile, can have a low THC level and be highly impaired.

Are drug recognition experts the answer?

Faced with the fact that THC levels are not a reliable measure of impairment, many law enforcement agencies are now relying on so-called drug recognition experts to catch stoned drivers. These specially trained police officers are taught unique skills to recognize the signs of marijuana-linked impairment in drivers.

However, drug recognition experts may not be as reliable as they are often portrayed as. A number of civil rights groups, most notably the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), have pointed out that drug recognition experts are making a highly subjective judgment when they decide that a person seems too impaired by marijuana to drive. Indeed, their status as "experts" may reinforce a belief in themselves as having a special ability to detect stoned drivers. The ACLU has even filed a lawsuit against one police department in Georgia alleging that one of its drug recognition experts arrested three men for driving while high. Subsequent testing showed that the men in fact had not consumed marijuana. The ACLU alleges that the drug recognition expert arrested the men more on the basis of racial prejudice than on her supposed "expertise".

Help after an arrest

Anybody who has been arrested and may be facing criminal charges needs to talk to a criminal defense attorney right away. Every charge is serious and needs to be treated as such. An experienced attorney can help clients uphold their rights and advocate for their best interests.

  • The Iowa State Bar Association
  • DUI Defense Law
  • NACDL
  • AAJ
  • Iowa Association of Justice

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  • J. Dean Keegan J. Dean Keegan

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    Decades of Award-Winning Legal Service J. Dean Keegan was born and raised in Waterloo, Iowa. After high school, Dean served ...
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  • Eric D. Tindal Eric D. Tindal

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    Highly Rated Criminal Defense in Iowa City Eric D. Tindal, attorney at Keegan, Tindal & Mason, graduated from the University ...
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  • Andrea D. Mason Andrea D. Mason

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    Experienced Criminal Defense in the Iowa and Illinois Quad Cities Andrea D. Mason practices in the areas of white collar ...
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  • Operating While Intoxicated Charges Dismissed

    Linn County OWCR133760. Attorney Eric Tindal's client was arrested for Operating While Intoxicated. Mr. Tindal had all charges dismissed following a successful suppression hearing regarding the grounds for the stop.

  • Possession with Intent to Deliver Marijuana and Methamphetamine Charges Dismissed

    Washington Count FECR5351. Attorney Tindal and Attorney Clemens Erdahl successfully argued that evidence of drug manufacture was obtained in violation of the Constitution. All charges were dismissed.

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    Iowa County FECR010358. Attorney Tindal was able to show the Court that his client was detained in violation of his Constitutional rights and that the K9 utilized in the search was unreliable. Following hearing all charges were dismissed.

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    Johnson County FECR089277. The Defendant was charged with Second Degree Sexual Abuse and other charges. Following a one-week trial by Mr. Tindal, the Defendant was acquitted of all charges.

  • Sexual Abuse in the 2nd Degree Conviction Reversed on Appeal

    Iowa Supreme Court No. 04-361. The Defendant was convicted of Sexual Abuse in the 2nd Degree. On appeal, Mr. Tindal successfully argued that the conviction was based on improperly admitted evidence. The conviction was reversed.

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  • Vehicular Homicide Charges Reduced

    Johnson County FECR68296. The Defendant was charged with Vehicular Homicide. Following a suppression hearing, Mr. Tindal and his co-counsel were able to show that the blood test result was taken in violation of implied consent procedures. The case was subsequently resolved for a misdemeanor.

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    Henry County FECR005634. Attorney Tindal’s client was charged with First Degree Murder and Child Endangerment Causing Death. Following a two week trial, the Defendant was acquitted of all charges.

  • Operating While Intoxicated Reduced to Public Intoxication

    Johnson County OWCR116811. The Defendant was charged with Operating While Intoxicated. Mr. Tindal was able to win the Iowa Dept of Transportation appeal and have the blood test result thrown out. The case was resolved for a public intoxication charge and no loss of license.

  • Operating While Intoxicated Second Offense Reduced to Public Intoxication

    Washington County OWIN010946. The Defendant was charged with Operating While Intoxicated Second Offense. Following long negotiations with the State the Defendant was able to plead to a Public Intoxication and have his driving privileges reinstated.

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