Special Report: Policing drugged drivers
(NEWSCHANNEL 3) - For the last two decades, millions of dollars of federal grant money has been poured into targeting drunk drivers.
Now, there's a push to target high drivers. Spotting them requires weeks of specialized training and there are only a handful here in Michigan.
Newschannel 3's Lourin Sprenger has a closer look at how one West Michigan deputy is cracking down on these drugged drivers.
The statistics are startling. Three times as many drivers pulled over for driving high versus driving dunk. Now new laws are allowing these drivers to be charged with DUIs, but the training and prosecution is still a fairly new concept.
We spent the day with Deputy Brian Matthews of the Van Buren County Sheriff's Department, named Officer of the Month nationwide for this specialized drug training. It's training he tells us has changed his career in police work.
It's a full day out on the road. The veteran deputy is making countless stops, mostly for routine traffic violations, from expired plates, to distracted driving.
"This is what I'm doing all day long. I am watching people all the time," Matthews says. "If they are weaving within their lane, failing to signal, sometimes it's speeding. It could be a whole variety of different things."
But Matthews is watching for much more than that. It's the same sobriety test used for alcohol.
Matthews stopped a driver for a broken tail light, quickly realizing something wasn't quite right.
The driver's breath test comes back clean, but Matthews spotted a prescription bottle in the car.
Matthews says, "Almost three times the amount of people driving are underneath the influence of drugs than they are alcohol."
Ultimately, the man passes his sobriety test and is let go. "He's going to get a warning, that way I can document what happened," Matthews explains.
Matthews tells us there were still signs of the pain pills in his system, 24 to 48 hours later. "That is a huge misconception right now," Matthews says. "People believe it's not alcohol, it's not dangerous."
In the last year, 22 percent of the drivers arrested in Van Buren County were high; just two percent were drunk.
"Looking back and seeing these drivers," Matthews says, "there was something wrong with them, but I couldn't put my finger on it."
Matthews is one of just 50 officers in the state -- two in his county -- to attend a three-week training course in Arizona to detect drugs. "It was the hardest training I've ever had, hands down." He says.
The class doesn't come cheap. It's $12,000 dollars a person, ending with an eight-hour written exam. "Prior to the laws changing four or five years ago, it was almost impossible. If you had a person under the influence of pills or meth you couldn't arrest them for it" Matthews says.
With 15 years of experience on the road, Matthews says the year since graduation has changed his life. He made his first drugged-driving arrest just minutes after he returned home. "I have arrested, myself, anywhere between one to two people a day at given times," he says, performing 43 of these evaluations since.
"I can remember a prime example that I stopped a car early in my career. The person told me she was really tired. Looking back, I know she was because she took a bunch of prescription pills and it impaired her ability to drive."
Matthews says he never knows what he's walking up to, stopping this car on I-94 for crossing the center line. The simple stop quickly turned into a felony case.
The driver admitted to being high. Matthews searched the car for drugs. He didn't turn up any, but discovered a receipt for cold medicine, a main component of methamphetamine.
The driver and one passenger were arrested, now facing operating while impaired and manufacturing charges. "People will do certain things to hide that they are using drugs," Matthews says.
Without Matthews' drug recognition, the men would have likely walked away with just a ticket. "People need to recognize what the basic signs and symptoms are," he says.
The deputy is now pushing increased training in the county and encouraging others to contact him on stops where they know something just isn't quite right.
"There are more police officers recognizing what it is nowadays. I've arrested people for driving at 7 in the morning and 7 p.m. at night. It doesn't really matter," Matthews says.
Matthews has been honored on a national and local level for his work. He says most in Van Buren County now have basic drug-recognition skills, but only 3,000 to 4,000 officers of the 800,000 in the U.S. can detect drugs at his level.