California Looking at New Drug-Detecting DUI Technology

AB 1356 authorizes law enforcement to use a new device to check drivers for use of pot, cocaine and other drugs.

by / May 8, 2015
Barry Staver
Barry Staver

California lawmakers are considering a proposal that would give cops permission to use technology that identifies drivers under the influence of marijuana, cocaine and other drugs.

Assembly Bill 1356 changes California law to state that any person driving a motor vehicle has given their consent to chemical testing of his or her blood or oral fluids. Under the measure, law enforcement officers are then authorized to use a new device that can detect drugs in someone’s system using a swab of saliva.

The DDS 2 Mobile Test System was developed by Alere and is reported to have a 90 percent accuracy rate, according to the company. The device screens the saliva sample and determines in a matter of minutes whether the driver has taken amphetamines, cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamines or opiates.

California Assemblyman Tom Lackey, R-Palmdale, a former highway patrol officer, authored the measure. He told Government Technology the legislation gives officers the ability to compile more data during a situation, in order to make more informed decisions on whether or not to arrest someone for driving erratically.

“The facts have proven that we’ve become effective in identifying and removing the drivers impaired by alcohol, but in the other issues that are impairing people, we have a ways to go,” Lackey said. “This is a tool that would allow the officers to have the same kind of ability to make objective calls, and be more accurate in their depiction of other intoxicants outside of alcohol.”

Initial Concerns

AB 1356 has some doubters, however. Lackey said defense attorneys have voiced concerns over how the test results from the device may be viewed in terms of evidentiary value and the final determination of someone’s blood level of intoxication.

Lackey called those issues “premature,” and said he believes the science behind the technology is strong. But he also stressed that the device is only going to be used as a screening tool, so officers can make a more reasonable assessment of a person they’ve stopped.

“The technology is not setting new limits for drug intoxication,” he said.

California National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (Cal NORML), stands neutral on the bill. But Dale Gieringer, director of the nonprofit group, pointed out that while oral swabs are “roughly as sensitive” as blood tests for detecting use, there’s a lack of scientific data on the accuracy of the tests being proposed for use by cops in California.

Gieringer told Government Technology that oral swab testing doesn’t measure actual impairment, but rather past use by a person. That could lead to motorists who are medical marijuana users coming up positive without actually being impaired.

Lackey hosted a demonstration of the DDS 2 device on April 20. A medical marijuana patient volunteered for the test and came up positive, at which point, Gieringer said Lackey noted the person would have likely been arrested for DUI had he or she previously been arrested for bad driving and taken a field sobriety test.

“We do not object to oral swab testing being used in such cases, so long as it’s understood they don’t constitute legal proof of impairment, just evidence of recent use,” Gieringer said. “We would strongly object if California police started administering oral swab tests at random road blocks or for minor nondriving-related offenses like expired plates or a busted tail light.”

Looking Ahead

If AB 1356 becomes law, one of the roadblocks behind it being successful at helping curb drug-impaired driving could be money. There’s no financing mechanism in the bill, meaning the California Highway Patrol and local agencies would have to purchases the devices without additional funding. Pricing information was unavailable on the Alere website.

Lackey wasn’t overly concerned with the issue, however. He said he was focused on getting the bill “accepted and authorized.” He added that federal grants and partnering with other agencies interested in traffic safety could be potential ways departments could come up with the money needed to get the technology in the hands of officers.

AB 1356 is currently in the Assembly Public Safety Committee. On May 5, the measure was considered by just three Assembly members, who voted in favor of it, 2-1. Since there wasn’t a quorum however, due to four members of the committee not voting, the bill failed, but was granted reconsideration. As of press time on May 8, no hearing had been set for the re-vote.

Brian Heaton

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.