Arrested in New Jersey for Drug DUI: Could One’s Fate Hinge on a DRE’s Testimony?

Every day, dozens of drivers all around the Garden State find themselves in the unenviable position of being arrested and later charged with impaired driving. While the safety of our roadways is everyone’s concern, as Monmouth County trial lawyers working in the area of DWI and drug DUI law, we understand how innocent individuals can occasionally be accused of offenses they believe they did not commit. One type of traffic-related offense that happens quite often in our state is that of impaired driving resulting from the use or abuse of a controlled dangerous substance (CDS).

Under New Jersey law (N.J.S.A. 39:4-50[a]), motorists can be arrested for operating a car, truck or motorcycle if a police officer believes that the individual is under the influence of a hallucinogenic, narcotic, or habit-producing substance. Unlike drunken driving, which can be quantified by measuring an individual’s blood-alcohol concentration (or BAC), a charge of drug DUI should usually be supported by the opinion of an expert in the field of drugs and medicines that have the ability to cause impairment.

While the requirements affecting a drug DUI arrest have been somewhat relaxed while the topic is being argued on appeal in the New Jersey court system, the issue of who can and should determine a driver’s impairment is all the more important to those facing charges of driving under the influence of an illegal substance, or even a doctor-prescribed medication.

Briefly put, the term “under the influence” is generally considered as a “substantial deterioration or diminution” of a person’s mental faculties (and/or their physical capabilities) regardless of whether that impairment is due to alcohol, narcotics or some other kind of hallucinogenic or habit-producing drug. Once a driver has been stopped for a traffic offense, a police officer may suspect that the person behind the wheel is under the influence of drugs if he or she exhibits one or more typical physical indicators, such as disrupted fine-motor skills, glassy, red or blood shot eyes, or drooping eyelids, among others.

When it comes to deciding if a driver is impaired due to drugs, state law requires a drug recognition expert (also referred to as a DRE) to make that determination. In most instances, a DRE is a law enforcement officer has been specially trained to identify the various factors associated with drug-related impairment. Interestingly, because of the extensive training needed to become a DRE, many police departments here in New Jersey do not actually have a qualified individual on staff to perform driver evaluations.

There are several specific categories of drugs that a DRE should be able to identify when evaluating a driver who is suspected of drug DUI. These include the following:

— Cannabis — Central Nervous System Depressants — Central Nervous System Stimulants — Hallucinogens — Narcotic Analgesics — Inhalants — Dissociative Anesthetics
One may notice that we placed cannabis at the top of the list. This is because cannabis (AKA marijuana, pot, weed, hash, etc.) is one of the more frequently used drugs these days. A side note, as well: Whether marijuana becomes legal in New Jersey as it has out West, the fact that it has the potential to cause some level of impairment means that it will likely always be one of the many substances for which a driver may be charged with drug DUI.

Not only do drug recognition experts make a determination as to a motorist’s level of drug-related impairment, they may also be called upon to lend testimony when a driver attempts to fight one or more drug DUI charges in court. As part of a DRE’s job, there is a 12-step protocol used to detect drug impairment in a suspect. These include preliminary questioning of the driver, as well as examination of the eyes; so-called “divided attention tests” (also known as field sobriety tests); the taking of a motorist’s vital signs (heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature); muscle tone tests; and an exam for possible needle marks or injection sites.

One might conclude that the job of a DRE is more than a little bit complicated, which could lead to another conclusion: that those defendants who have been charged with drug DUI may be facing some very strong evidence against them. Yet the opposite can sometimes be true; because of the complexity involved in a DRE’s evaluation of a suspect, the opportunity for error or procedural mistakes can lead to a variety of potential legal defenses.

The bottom line for many people who have been accused of drug DUI is that even with the existence of the DRE’s opinion, there is no reason to assume that a conviction is automatically going to happen. This is why we recommend that anyone charged with drug DUI consult a qualified legal expert in the field of DWI-DUI defense. Considering the potential monetary penalties, not to mention possible jail time, it makes sense to get a professional opinion before stepping into a courtroom or even speaking with a prosecuting attorney.