Police recently gathered at the Capitol to kick off the holiday drunk-driving crackdown
Timvv Sealy/AFN Contributor

Early one morning last November, an Ahwatukee mom on early morning jog  suddenly turned into a tragic symbol of the evolution of driving under the influence cases.

Martha Hilts, a 36-year-old mother of two, was struck and fatally injured by a woman who was arrested on suspicion of manslaughter after a blood test revealed a .08 percent blood alcohol reading, the level at which drivers are presumed under the influence in Arizona.

But police also detected the odor of marijuana in driver Shannon Marie Scott’s car and suspect she may have been impaired by a combination of alcohol and pot.

In what is a deadly trend throughout Arizona and the nation, police are seeing more DUI cases in which alcohol is combined with potent drugs, including powerful painkillers and even heroin.

Although the results of blood tests are still pending, Hilts’ death Nov. 2 appears to be the result of “a mixture of possible intoxicants,’’ said Phoenix Police Lt. David Moore, supervisor of the Vehicular Crimes Unit.

“Sometimes what is overlooked is you have two lives destroyed’’ by one person’s irresponsible decision to drive while impaired, he said, adding that he has little sympathy for Scott. “All sorts of lives are destroyed by this decision.’’

Moore and officers in the East Valley say they are seeing more drug cases in traffic arrests, while impairment from alcohol remains a deadly, chronic problem.

He said even the most non-threatening events – Hilts’ early morning run and even the recent Ignite Hope Walk at Phoenix Children’s Hospital – can suddenly get turned into a dangerous situation by an impaired driver.

He said a woman nearly hit a security guard at the Phoenix Children’s event and eventually struck a barricade. Police did not smell alcohol but a drug recognition officer examined the driver and found evidence that she had been using a narcotic painkiller. A search of the woman’s car found six bottles of pills and a syringe, Moore said.

“I would like to believe most people are not going out impaired,’’ he said, with many people not realizing how impaired they are by their medication, or addicted to various drugs after being prescribed medication legally for a valid reason.

“They don’t realize they are very impaired and putting other people at risk.’’

Decades of crackdowns and education campaigns have made an impact on the chronic alcohol problem, with the public tolerating drunk driving far less and popularity of designated drivers and ride sharing services increasing.

But police say the number of drug-related cases continues to rise, demonstrating a need for more education on the growing “drugged driving’’ problem.

 “They have a veritable pharmacy in their systems,’’ said Chandler police officer Dan McQuillan, mentioning marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, Zanex and Soma as some of the drugs found in driver’s systems.

“When you get out on the street, the people I work for are at risk,’’ he said. “That’s when I care.’’

McQuillan and Mesa police officer Jim McDowell, a Drug Recognition Officer and instructor, agreed that the drug-DUI problem – sometimes known as “drugged driving’’ – seems most prevalent during daytime hours.

McQuillan said he had one month where only two or three of his arrests involved alcohol. McDowell estimated 90 percent of his DUI arrests during the day are for drugs, while it would be more like 65 percent when the night shift is included.

McQuillan said the DUI drugs cases are sometimes different than the stereotypical case of a drunk driving home from a bar.

“A lot of people who take pain medications, they are just trying to get through their day,’’ McQuillan said. “They build up a tolerance if they have been on the drug for a while. That’s when the addiction kicks in.’’

Police say there seems to be less public awareness of the dangers of driving while under the influence of drugs, and they wish that people would simply read the warning labels attached to their prescription bottles and act more responsibly.

While the number of DUI arrests might not be changing dramatically, the dynamics are much different than 25 years ago, when Mesa police Sgt. Sean Kelly started his career and the vast majority of DUI arrests were attributed to alcohol.

“What’s way up is the number of designated drivers,’’ Kelly said.

But the move toward drivers under the influence of marijuana, pain-killers and opiates is also unmistakable, with Kelly estimating that 70 percent of his cases are drug-related and 30 percent alcohol-related.

“We are seeing a resurgence of DUIs with opiates,’’ Kelly said, which can include powerful prescription drugs such as Oxycontin and Percocet.

Kelly said many suspects tell police how they have suffered a major injury or undergone a major surgery and develop a dependency, turning to street drugs such as heroin when their prescriptions run out. Heroin also can be cheaper than prescription opiates.

“In many cases, it starts with pain management.  There is an addiction element to using these drugs,’’ Kelly said. “It can eventually manifest itself in illegal drugs such as heroin.’’

Although police are sympathetic to such cases, they still have to cite drivers who are impaired, whether the substance is alcohol or heroin, he said.

“It’s our job to prevent tragedy,’’ Kelly said.

McQuillan said his compassion for such drivers is tempered by memories of informing family members that a drunk driver just killed their husband or daughter. Chandler police lost longtime motor officer David Payne in such a collision during the 2014 East Valley Halloween task force, when an impaired driver ran into Payne’s motorcycle from behind.

“Whether it’s alcohol or drugs, all the people we’ve arrested are flawed. We all make mistakes,’’ McQuillan said.

Across the East Valley, Arizona and the nation, opiate abuse has reached epidemic proportions.  The Arizona Department of Health Service estimates that 564 people in Arizona have died from heroin overdoses this year.

Arizona is considered a major drug smuggling transit point for cartels that mainly ship heroin to the upper Midwest and Northeast, where they can maximize profits and where the opiate problem is considered the worst nationally, according to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.

Arizona law enforcement officers and deputies statewide made 4,948 “drugged driving” arrests through Nov. 28, with arrest figures from ongoing holiday crackdown not yet available, according to Governor’s Office of Highway Safety.

“There’s no question that impairment by drugs has grown tremendously over the last 10 years,’’ Gutier said. “It’s a major problem, even though we have hundreds of drug recognition officers.” 

With a fully accredited forensic lab and a team of 11 traffic officers trained as DREs, Mesa appears better equipped to handle the drug cases than many agencies, which either have partial labs or no labs and rely on busy Arizona Department of Public Safety labs.

All of Mesa’s traffic officers are drug recognition experts, who perform tests in the field to recognize the symptoms of drug impairment. One of these tests involves tracking eye movements.

Most DUIs start with a traffic stop where the officer determines the driver’s behavior is symptomatic of an impaired driver, such as weaving in a lane, driving too slow or even passing out at a traffic light.

The officer’s observations serve as probable cause for a traffic stop and the results of a DRE exam serve as probable cause for a blood test. Police in Maricopa County can obtain an electronic search warrant for a blood test in about 10 minutes, speeding up the process, said Alberto Gutier, director of the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety.

Gutier said Arizona serves as a national example of how to address DUI drugs, with other states sending officers to Arizona for training.  He said 400 to 500 Arizona officers are DREs, helping them spot drug-impaired drivers who previously went undetected because of a lack of alcohol recorded in breath tests.

Chris Murphy, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s regional director for California and Arizona, praised Arizona’s commitment to combatting DUI drugs, noting that Arizona is the 16th largest state in population but has the third most DRE-trained officers.

“There is no state more committed to impaired driving than Arizona,’’ Murphy said.

For the first time in 2015, more drivers nationwide who were involved in fatal collisions tested positive for drugs, 43 percent, than for alcohol, Murphy said.

The drug problem is only beginning to come into focus because many police departments prefer to stick with relying on blood-alcohol readings to obtain an easier conviction.

While alcohol levels are well-calibrated to equate with impaired driving, drug levels are much murkier when determining impairment, according to Murphy and Jim Hedlund, a former NHTSA official considered a top national expert on the issue.

“This thing is so under-recognized and under-enforced,’’ Murphy said. “We are right now with drugs where we were with alcohol in the 1950s.’’

Police say routine cases sometimes are held up for three or four months while they await the results of blood tests for drugs.

Hedlund, who has studied the DUI drugs problem for the national Governors Highway Safety Association, said that while alcohol has been scientifically correlated with impairment for 50 years, the correlation with drugs is far less exact.

“Everyone tries to put it in an alcohol framework and it doesn’t work very well,’’ he said, with different drugs breaking down into the system at different rates.  He said scientists understand that there are certain symptoms of impairment with different types of drugs.

“The impairment varies substantially from person to person,’’ Hedlund said.

He said the studies so far confirm that drug use among drivers involved in fatal collisions is going up.

But Hedlund cautioned that he can only say that there is a higher presence of drugs in the systems of such drivers. He said he does not have enough information to conclude that these drivers were impaired at the time of the fatal collision and more studies are required.

Amanda Jacinto, a spokeswoman for the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, said drug cases rely on another aspect of the Arizona DUI law that many people overlook.

While drivers are presumed under the influence of alcohol at a .08 percent blood alcohol reading, the law also specifies that it illegal to drive if impaired to the slightest degree, she said

 A positive drug test, when combined with an officer’s observations of driving behavior and a DRE exam, all help to establish that a driver is impaired.

Hedlund said he is closely monitoring the results of one -year pilot program in Michigan, in which the Michigan State Police are using the results of oral swab exams to determine if a driver is positive for drug use.

 “The thing that would help us is good roadside testing for drugs,’’ Hedlund said. “That would really help officers a lot. I think it’s the next big

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