Mountains

Eye for drugged drivers

Journal/Reid Wright

Local law enforcement found this pouch, containing a substance believed to be methamphetamine following a traffic stop initiated by Deputy Darrin Harper early Monday.

By Journal staff writer

After midnight, a patrol SUV driven by Montezuma County Sheriff’s Deputy Darrin Harper creeps to a stop with its headlights off.

Harper is watching some suspicious behavior at a convenience store across the street when a late-model pickup truck loaded with furniture and other items rolls by.

Harper accelerates, catching up to the truck as it turns onto Seventh Street in Cortez. The vehicle drifts across the center of the street several times.

“Look at that right there,” he says. “If it goes over one time, that’s one thing. But this is something else.”

When dispatch tells Harper the name of the registered owner of the truck, he realizes it is 51-year-old Linda Vavra, a woman he has arrested before for driving under the influence. He suspects she has just purchased more.

Harper is specially trained as a drug recognition expert to recognize the symptoms of drug use.

He pulls the truck over and asks the woman to step out for a drug evaluation to determine if she is under the influence of drugs.

Vavra refuses, rolling up her window and talking on her mobile phone. She tells the officer her truck is weaving because of the weight of the load.

Harper tells her several times to put down her phone, turn off the engine and get out of the vehicle.

“I’m going to break the window if you refuse to get out of the vehicle,” he says.

Another deputy arrives and parks his patrol sport-utility-vehicle in front of the truck. Two officers with the Cortez Police Department also arrive, taking turns attempting to talk the woman out of her truck.

Dispatch advises Vavra is calling 911. She is requesting state patrol.

After a final warning, tire spikes are placed behind the rear wheels of the truck and Harper yanks out the driver’s side window, which shatters with a pop onto the pavement.

Vavra is wrested from the truck and handcuffed. She complains of an injury to her hand and is told she will receive treatment in a moment.

While patting her down, officers find a pouch with what Harper believes is more than 3,300 hits of methamphetamine.

The woman says she does not know what was in the pouch.

She is arrested, and charged with resisting arrest and possession of methamphetamine.

DRUG RECOGNITION EXPERT

A law enforcement officer for 17 years, Harper became certified as a drug recognition expert, or DRE, in 2004 and as a DRE instructor in 2006. More than two weeks of intensive training and twelve evaluations are required to become a DRE. This is in addition to regular DUI and advanced DUI training.

Harper came to Montezuma County from Yavapai County, Ariz., four months ago to work as a DRE. Since then, he has made nearly 20 driving-under-the influence-of-drugs arrests and numerous drug possession arrests stemming from his ability to recognize the symptoms of drug use.

The influx of DUID charges is largely new to the local criminal justice system, which is accustomed to a steady stream of conventional driving under the influence of alcohol charges.

Harper says some local suspects are also unaccustomed to being recognized as being under the influence of drugs.

“There’s still a lot of people out there driving around under the influence,” he says, adding he suspects there are more people driving under the influence of drugs than alcohol.

As the local drug task force is under threat of being disbanded after cuts in federal grants, Montezuma County Sheriff Dennis Spruell says the employment of a DRE offers another tool for drug enforcement.

“It’s just another tool that we use to combat the war on drugs — which we will never win, but we will stay in the fight,” Spruell says.

Harper’s primary purpose is to keep drugged drivers off the road, while the drug task force focuses primarily on drug dealers, Spruell says.

“He’s been very aggressive,” Spruell says. “He’s been doing a good job. He’s made several good arrests. And we’ll see how the courts play it out. I think he’s keeping our streets safer by recognizing these people who are under the influence of drugs. And that’s what it’s all about, is making our community safer. Before, if they were a drugged driver, we didn’t have the expertise to find them.”

Unless the task force gets a gaming grant in November, Spruell says the operation could be shut down, Spruell says. There are no plans to train more DREs, but it is a possibility in the future.

‘ALL IN THE EYES’

When speaking to a suspect, Harper says he looks at disorientation, body tremors, heart rate, blood pressure, muscle rigidity, taste buds, demeanor, complexion, odor, eye movements, pupil dilation or constriction.

“It’s all in the eyes,” he says. “The eyes can tell a big story.”

He also tests a subject’s perception of time. He has them close their eyes and calculate the passage of 30 seconds. If the suspect calls 30 seconds too soon or too late, they may be under the influence of stimulants or depressants.

Harper has a matrix chart, with all the symptoms of various classifications of drug use. Instead of trying to identify use of a specific drug, Harper tries to narrow down into a category of drug, such as stimulant, depressant, narcotic or canniboid.

The matrix is updated regularly to keep up with emerging designer drugs, such as bath salts or salvia.

“The hardest thing is updating yourself on all the new drugs coming out,” he says. “People are coming up with their own drugs every day.”

Even individuals consuming drugs legally, such as doctor-prescribed drugs or medical marijuana with a card, can become illegal if the individual drives while inhibited by the drug.

Harper says if a medication bottle indicates that a drug should not be taken before operating a motor vehicle, abuse of that leads to a DUID charge.

“There’s a lot of people driving around under the influence and they don’t even realize it,” Harper says.

Marijuana can remain active in the system for up to 24 hours, Harper says, and can turn up positive in a urine test for up to 45 days.

The goal of a DRE evaluation is to determine if a drug is currently active in an individual and impairing their judgement. Using a series of tests, Harper says he can identify what drugs are active in a person with a 97 percent success rate when compared to a blood or urine analysis.

When Harper misses the mark, he says it is usually because a drug has not yet been identified or a person is under the influence of several different drugs at once and he may miss one.

Since 2004, Harper says he has performed 218 full DRE evaluations, 17 of which took place in Montezuma County.

He says he communicates with local drug task force agents about local users and dealers. Drug enforcement officers can also be utilized to work with child protection services, probation, courts and schools to determine if individuals are under the influence of drugs.

“It opens up lots of doors to be utilized in so many ways,” Harper says.

Most suspects under the influence of drugs eventually admit it, Harper says. Some are even relieved to have been caught as a means of seeking rehabilitation.

Harper says since becoming a DRE, he can better see how drug addiction can be oppressive, rule people’s lives and lead them to commit other crimes.

“I know if I can change their life around, I just might prevent a burglary or theft so they won’t make people a victim of a crime just to feed their addiction,” he says.

Reach Reid Wright at reidw@cortezjournal.com.

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