New technology could help fight drugged driving

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Nico Savidge
Friday, September 13, 2013

JANESVILLE—If a driver on a Wisconsin street gets pulled over and fails a field sobriety test, a police officer who suspects he's drunk can give him a roadside breathalyzer test and know in seconds if he is.

If that driver had smoked pot, abused prescription medication or taken any number of other drugs before getting behind the wheel, the officer doesn't have that option.

“A breathalyzer, an intoxemeter, even a portable PBT isn't checking for those things,” said Janesville police Lt. Tim Hiers, using the abbreviations for officers' handheld breath-testing devices.

Instead, officers must take drivers down to the police department and draw their blood, then wait weeks or months for the results from a state lab before officially citing them for having drugs in their system, authorities said.

In one northern Wisconsin community, though, new technology gives police a quicker answer to the question of whether or not a driver is on drugs.

At the mouth of the Menominee River, across from Michigan's upper peninsula, the Marinette Police Department has been using the Drger DrugTest 5000 for the past week and a half, Sgt. Scott Ries said.

The machine works “just like a PBT for drugs,” Ries said, except it uses a driver's saliva instead of her breath.

Officers swab a driver's cheek to get a sample, then feed the sample into a silver and black box about the size of a toaster. In eight minutes, the machine tests the saliva for eight categories of drugs—everything from pot to amphetamines—and tells the officer what's in the driver's system, Ries said.

“This is getting real close,” he said.

The technology has its drawbacks: It's not admissible in a trial, for instance, and it's not cheap. A Drger machine runs about $6,000, Ries said, and each test costs $20.

Even without that option, Rock County authorities said policies they have now are up to the task of spotting drugged drivers.

“You work with the facts that you have and the resources you have right now,” Capt. Jude Maurer of the Rock County Sheriff's Office said. “Thus far, it's worked fine for us.”

Officers who suspect a driver is impaired do a lot more than just give a breath test, Maurer pointed out. They also notice how the driver acts, if the car smells like alcohol or marijuana and, of course, how the driver does on a field sobriety test.

Even in Marinette, most of the steps for making an intoxicated driving arrest haven't changed with the new technology, Ries said. Officers still must build probable cause to give the test, and they still must draw a suspect's blood to prove he's intoxicated.

Still, having the roadside tests gives officers another way to catch potentially intoxicated drivers, Ries said.

For police departments that don't have such an option, getting those results faster certainly wouldn't hurt, Hiers said.

“Any time that you have something else that helps the officer make that determination, that would be beneficial,” he said.

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