What Is A Pennsylvania Drug Recognition Expert or “DRE”?

Filed under: Criminal Law, DUI by Contributor @ April 7, 2013

When police suspect a motorist of driving under the influence of drugs there may be no odor of alcohol and a PBT breathalyzer may show no BAC. In this situation, police will sometimes use a Pennsylvania Drug Recognition Expert (“DRE”) to render an opinion regarding whether a motorist is under the influence of drugs. A DRE is an officer who is trained in a form of pharmacology, the science of how drugs affect humans. DREs were first used by the LAPD in 1979 when officers noticed individuals that were clearly impaired by a substance, yet had no alcohol in their system. Since then, many states have adopted the use of DREs. Pennsylvania has 85 DREs – 63 of them are State Troopers.

DREs undergo over 100 hours of drug-recognition training and a battery of exams…far more than the typical patrol officer. The DRE observes an individual as he performs 12 simple tests and plugs the results into a matrix that he carries with him. And in no time at all, the DRE knows exactly what kind of drug the individual is impaired by! Sounds great, right?

Not quite. The problem with DREs is that they take an enormously complex issue (how people are affected by drugs), and simplify it down to a sheet of paper and a crash-course in pharmacology. In reality, the only people who are truly qualified to render such an opinion are pharmacologists (who have earned a PhD or PharmD). A Drug Evaluation and Classification (“DEC”) program is nowhere near a substitute for an advanced academic or professional degree. On top of that, how is a DRE to know how an individual acts when not impaired by drugs? Even a pharmacologist could not render an accurate opinion without first examining the person when sober. DREs are non-scientific lay witnesses opining on the results of non-scientific tests.

Despite the wholly unreliable nature of DRE testimony, their admissibility in court is unclear. Two courts in Maryland have reached different opinions on the matter. In State v. Brightful (2012), the Circuit Court for Carrol County granted the defense motion to suppress evidence and testimony from the DRE, since the DEC program “is not generally accepted as valid and reliable in the relevant scientific community which includes pharmacologists, neurologists, ophthalmologists, toxicologists, behavioral research psychologists, forensic specialists and medical doctors,” and therefore fails the Frye test. More recently, however, the Circuit Court for Montgomery County reached a differing conclusion. In his opinion denying the defense’s motion to suppress DRE testimony, the Honorable David A. Boynton ruled in State v. Crampton (2013) that the DEC and DREs are not new or novel scientific evidence, and as such, are not subject to the Frye test.

So far, no Pennsylvania appellate court has ruled on the admissibility of DRE evidence or DEC training. There are some great arguments to be made against the use of DRE evidence. If you have been charged with driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, contact an experienced DUI attorney at Fairlie & Lippy today.

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