By ALLISON REAMER
Now that he knows what he knows, Seneca County Sheriff’s Deputy Christopher Potter thinks he may have missed something four years ago: a drugged driver.
Potter was among those called when an enraged male driver assaulted a female driver who allegedly cut him off. The man got out of his car, slapped the woman, and pinned her in her vehicle before leaving.
Potter and other deputies found the man two hours later at his home, still upset.
“He was excited, extremely excited,” Potter said. “He had exaggerated reflexes and he wouldn’t stop moving.”
Though the man was charged for his actions, Potter thinks the suspect also was under the influence of a stimulant.
“I thought the guy was just hyper, but it could have been a telltale sign of a stimulant,” the deputy said. “He exhibited every indicator of a stimulant, but I didn’t know it at the time.”
Such signs could include increased energy and alertness, euphoria, dilated pupils, aggressiveness, and paranoia, according to medical experts.
Potter can now spot these symptoms, thanks to training that teaches law enforcement officers how to identify drug-impaired motorists.
Called Advanced Roadside Impaired Driving Enforcement, it teaches officers to observe, identify and articulate the signs of impairment related to drugs, alcohol, or a combination.
Potter took further training and is now a drug recognition expert, someone who can identify a person’s impairment through a 12-step evaluation of physical, mental and medical components.
Such an expert can help an officer who suspects drug intoxication.
Ohio is the 48th state to train drug recognition experts, a program developed in California in the 1970s after officers began seeing a high number of impaired drivers with low blood-alcohol content.
All Ohio officers are now trained in standardized field sobriety testing, which includes a three-part roadside test of a person’s eyes, and ability to walk and turn, and stand on one leg.
The new program bases some of its tests on this same baseline training.
Jake DeMonte, a Tiffin patrolman, completed drug recognition expert training in 2013. Since then, he has handled 80 cases as a drug recognition expert, including about 29 cases for the Tiffin area as well as surrounding counties during the past year. He said it is a high caseload.
He has also taught the course to over 500 officers, and encourages all officers to take it.
“Based on (officers’) original training, there was no focus on drugged driving and they would often miss common signs and let these people leave,” DeMonte said.
“Officers would say to themselves, ‘Something’s not right, but they’re not drunk, so I can’t arrest them.’ That’s not true.”
Potter said, “If they don’t smell alcohol, or if they get triple zeros on a PBT (preliminary breath test,) that driver’s sent on his way.”
Better training can prevent that, Potter said.
“Anybody can stop a car and look at a person and say, ‘There’s something wrong with that person.’ But (with the new program), you’re given the tools and training to identify exactly what’s wrong with the person,” he said.
Potter and DeMonte taught a course to 18 northwestern Ohio officers last month.
During the two-day training, officers learned tests to determine a person’s sobriety, and how seven drug categories affect a person’s body. The seven drug categories include depressants, stimulants, hallucinogens, dissociative anesthetics, narcotic analgesics, inhalants, and cannabis.
The trainers said rather than learning every drug, the drugs are grouped into categories because they often mimic each other.
“Someone using cocaine will look the same as someone abusing Adderall,” an amphetamine used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and narcolepsy, DeMonte said.
Hancock County Sheriff’s Sgt. Michael Cortez attended the training. Hancock County deputies Steve Lowry, Tom Miller and Matt Brunswick have previously been trained.
“The whole class was really interesting because learning the signs and symptoms and certain drug categories is something that’s new to all of us,” Cortez said.
“There’s a known effect on the eyes for each of the seven categories of drugs, and there’s a list of drugs that fall into each of those categories,” he said.
For example, the inability to cross one’s eyes gives an indication that certain drugs may be present.
Cortez said such training will also help determine if a person is having a medical emergency, such as a stroke.
“With this new training, it will encourage us to be able to identify exactly what (drug) it is,” Cortez said. “Once we do our field evaluation of the driver, we can then call the DRE (drug recognition expert) in to do the final evaluation to pinpoint” the drug.
The sheriff’s office is working to get all of its road deputies trained, Cortez said.
Four Findlay police officers, Morgan Greeno, Matt Paugh, John Schmidt and Aaron Flechtner, are also trained in Advanced Roadside Impaired Driving Enforcement. More will be trained.
Lt. Matt Crow, commander of the Findlay post of the State Highway Patrol, said 16 post troopers, a majority, are trained.
There may be an increase in the number of alcohol-intoxicated drivers from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m., Potter said. However, drugged driving can happen any time of day.
“What I’ve seen with drugged driving, it’s one time frame, and that’s from sunup to sundown. There’s no specific time,” Potter said.
The number of drivers with alcohol in their system has declined by nearly one-third since 2007, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Roadside Survey of Alcohol and Drug Use by Drivers.
However, the same survey found a large increase in the number of drivers using marijuana or other illegal drugs.
In the 2014 survey, nearly one in four drivers tested positive for at least one drug that could affect safety.
Law enforcement officials say a driver will often use two drugs and alcohol, or a combination of drugs. Such a combination only intensifies one another.
“It’s shocking to see how many people have other things in their system besides alcohol,” said Highway Patrol Sgt. Robert Burd, formerly of the Findlay post and now of the Lebanon post.
“They may have had one or two beers, but it’s just to mask the fact that they had a lot of drugs in their system. With a combination of a little bit of this, and a little bit of this, it all adds up to impairment.”
Within two weeks in the Findlay area, Burd arrested five people for operating under the influence. Three offenses were solely for driving under the influence of alcohol, while two were for drugs and alcohol combined.
Burd calls it a “very disturbing trend.”
“I don’t know if people assume everything is geared toward drunk driving, if they associate the word drunk with alcohol. That’s not the case,” he said.
“Drunk is associated with impairment, regardless if it’s a prescription or if it’s alcohol. Drunk is drunk.”
Law enforcement officials said the number of people under the influence of prescription drugs while driving is “skyrocketing.”
Some drivers will take a valid prescription without knowing its effects.
“A lot of times, you’ll hear someone say, ‘I didn’t realize what I was doing was really that bad. I thought it was OK because a doctor prescribed it,'” said Findlay Police Chief Greg Horne.
Should a doctor change a prescription, officials recommend taking it as prescribed.
Police officials also said they see more people taking illegal prescription medications, which often leads to heroin use.
“People typically start off with pills, but then they get so expensive that they can’t afford it, so they turn to heroin,” Cortez said. “It’s a huge problem.”
In southern Ohio, Burd is seeing similar trends. He said he recently responded to the scene of an accident caused by heroin use.
“We had a person actually drive off the road (Interstate 71) unconscious with the needle still in his arm,” Burd said. “He died. Somebody cared about him.”
Regardless of what causes the impairment, some drivers may have difficulty determining their level of intoxication before getting behind the wheel.
With alcohol, “people cannot judge their own level of impairment,” Findlay Police Capt. Sean Young said. “Under the influence, you have poor judgment in gauging your own ability to drive.”
And regardless of what drug drivers are choosing, Cortez said he just wants them off the streets.
“Whether or not there is one particular drug problem in Hancock County doesn’t really matter. The fact that they’re out there, traveling through our community, is enough to address the issue,” he said.
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