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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

Keegan, Tindal, & Mason 

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  • J. Dean Keegan
  • Eric D. Tindal
  • Andrea D. Mason
  • 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

    Attorney

    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

    Attorney

    Experienced Criminal Defense in Iowa City Andrea D. Mason practices in the areas of white collar criminal defense, government ...
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  • Operating While Intoxicated Record Expunged

    Johnson OWCR106890. Attorney Dean Keegan's client received an Operating While Intoxicated, a serious misdemeanor. After reviewing the videos, Mr. Keegan filed a Motion to Suppress arguing the officer denied his client's right to make a phone call. The State declined to present testimony at the hearing and the Motion to Suppress was granted, making the client eligible for a deferred judgment. Mr. Keegan's client will have her record expunged and be able to obtain a license after 90 days instead of 180.

  • Drug Charge Charge Dismissed

    Johnson County No. OWCR039210, Iowa City, Iowa. Attorney J. Dean Keegan conducted a three-day long suppression hearing which presented the first challenge to the "Drug Recognition Protocols" used in Iowa.

  • Embezzlement No Criminal Charges Filed

    Cedar Rapids, Linn County, Iowa. An employee of a Cedar Rapids business accused of embezzling six million dollars was not charged criminally after the County Attorney agreed to abide by an agreement negotiated by Attorneys J. Dean Keegan and Jerald Kinnamon in which the accused would pay two million dollars to the company.

  • Vehicular Homicide Charge Dismissed

    Johnson County No. FECR058630- Iowa City, Iowa. Attorneys J. Dean Keegan and Jerald W. Kinnamon successfully challenged the withdrawal of blood from a Defendant without his permission after a rollover accident in which a passenger in the vehicle was killed.

  • Vehicular Homicide Charge Dismissed

    Muscatine County No. FECR03718 - Muscatine, Iowa. If convicted of the vehicular homicide while intoxicated, as alleged in this case, the Defendant would have faced the possibility of a 25-year prison sentence, 17 years of which would have to be served before he would be eligible for parole. Following the depositions of the investigating officer and consultation with an accident reconstruction expert, Attorneys J. Dean Keegan and Jerry Kinnamon negotiated the dismissal of Vehicular Homicide as part of a plea

  • OWI Charge Dismissed

    Johnson County No. OWCR083001 - Iowa City, Iowa. Attorney J. Dean Keegan alleged that the Defendant's rights to contact a lawyer or family member may have been violated after his arrest. He requested video of the breath test from the arresting officer to support his allegation. When the officer failed to produce the video evidence in response written requests, a subpoena, and a Motion to Compel, the State conceded the issue and dismissed the offense.

  • OWI Acquittal at Jury Trial

    Johnson County No. OWCR077717- Iowa City, Iowa. Acquittal at jury trial of a defendant accused of Operating While Intoxicated who refused a breath alcohol test. Tried by Attorney J, Dean Keegan.

  • OWI Case Overturned

    State v. Hornik, Segura, et. al.Iowa City, Johnson County, Iowa. When the state of Iowa established that the Datamaster breath testing machine could be used to test subjects being investigated for OWI, it failed to establish a protocol for its proper use. Attorney J. Dean Keegan, in conjunction with the Johnson County Public Defender's Office, mounted a challenge to the use of the machine based on the lack of uniform instructions for its operation.

  • Zero Tolerance Driver's License Revocation Zero Tolerance Driver's License Revocation Overt

    Iowa Dept. of Inspection and Appeals Docket No. 08DOTOW3937. Attorney J. Dean Keegan successfully challenged a "Zero Tolerance" license revocation on the basis that the officer had failed to allow the driver to contact a family member or attorney for legal advice before submitting to the test.

  • OWI 2nd Offense Charge Dismissed

    Muscatine County No. OWCR040280 - Muscatine, Iowa. After Attorney Dean Keegan scheduled the deposition of the State's expert witness in this case, he learned that the breath test was inappropriately administered by the arresting officer. The State dismissed the offense outright and agreed that the breath test result should be inadmissible so the Defendant would not face the proposed one-year administrative revocation of her driver's license.

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