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Mitchell police officer earns expert status in drug recognition

Dan Fechner

Officer Dan Fechner considers himself an anti-drug crusader.

Early on in his career, the Mitchell police officer assisted in a couple of meth lab busts and found he wanted to fight the growing drug problem.

For the last two years, he has used his training as a drug recognition expert, or DRE, to catch drug users.

“The Highway Patrol needed to fill, at the time, a gap between Chamberlain and Sioux Falls,” he said. “They offered our department one spot for training.”

A DRE helps identify if someone — particularly a driver — is under the influence of an illegal drug like methamphetamine or an illegally obtained prescription drug.

The South Dakota Highway Patrol oversees the DREs in the state, of which there are 45 in 19 law enforcement agencies. South Dakota Highway Patrol Sgt. Ryan Mechaley said the national program began in the 1980s, developed by the Los Angeles Police Department, California Research Institute and a collaboration of law enforcement professionals. In 2004, the South Dakota Highway Patrol designated four troopers to attend training to become DREs, with Mechaley among them. He is now the state coordinator for DREs.

“With the trends we’re seeing, the demand for drug recognition experts is not going down by any means,” he said.

The skills DREs learn and use can be applied to drug arrests, driving while intoxicated arrests, in criminal investigations, and to educate the public on drug trends, Mechaley said.

A DRE candidate is selected through an application process.

“Just because someone wants to go doesn’t mean they get to go,” Mechaley said. “There’s a selection process and it’s competitive.”

The Highway Patrol determines where there might be a need to place a DRE.

A prerequisite for becoming a DRE is completing advanced roadside impaired driving enforcement, or ARIDE, training. It prepares officers to better recognize drivers affected by illegal drugs as opposed to alcohol.

The next step is for an officer to apply, which requires recommendations from the county prosecuting attorney and the candidate’s local law enforcement agency administrator. Mechaley said a DRE selection committee determines the final candidates for the course.

Once selected, candidates go through two weeks of classroom training, a week of field certification and a final exam to become certified.

Fechner did his field training in Tucson, Ariz., and just crossed his two-year mark for recertification.

DRE positions are funded through a grant offered by the state. Lee Axdahl, director of the Office of Highway Safety, said his office awarded $83,000 to the South Dakota Highway Patrol for 2014 specifically for DRE training. Applications for DRE training are submitted to the Highway Patrol, which then awards money from the state grant, Axdahl said, for the hours DREs spend in training.

Fechner said most of his time as a DRE is spent reading materials sent to him daily. Continuing education is the biggest part of the DRE role, he said.

A DRE’s job is to gather supporting evidence of drug impairment after a person is arrested for a crime, typically driving under the influence, Fechner said. After an officer establishes probable cause, he or she can arrest a person and then call in a DRE to perform an evaluation.

“It’s a post-arrest evaluation to gather additional evidence,” he said.

He added that drugs affect everyone differently and a urinalysis or blood draw may not reflect that they were impaired at the time of arrest.

While Fechner has assisted the South Dakota Highway Patrol in several DUI arrests, he said he has only performed four evaluations as a DRE for the Mitchell Police Division.

“I don’t do a lot of them here,” he said of the evaluations. “We should, though, because of the amount of drug cases I hear go through.”

Detective Lt. Don Everson said the position is still so new that many officers don’t think of calling Fechner out to a DUI arrest. Other times, Fechner may not have been available to assist, Everson said.

When on duty, Fechner said he can act as a DRE on his own arrests and on other officers’ arrests.

Aside from the obvious signs of impairment — swerving while driving, affected speech or body movements — Fechner said he looks for abnormally high pulse, muscle tone and injection sites. If a preliminary breath test, or PBT, comes back low on someone who seems impaired, Fechner might suspect a person is under the influence of something other than alcohol.

He said people under the influence of illegal drugs often have extremely high pulse rates and don’t cross their eyes when given a horizontal gaze test — an officer asks them to watch his finger as he moves it closer to their nose. Fechner said he checks for bloodshot eyes, asks basic medical questions and performs “divided attention tests,” such as asking suspects to balance with their eyes closed, walk in a straight line and turn, and stand on one leg and touch a finger to their nose.

One of Fechner’s arrests was a young man he pulled over for having no headlights. Fechner said he smelled burnt marijuana in the vehicle and the man failed all field sobriety tests.

“A big tell there was he looked like he was on a tightrope on the straight-walk test,” Fechner said. “His coordination was completely off.”

Fechner arrested the young man for driving under the influence and determined he was under the influence of marijuana. A urinalysis confirmed his opinion, he said.

Fechner said his DRE evaluation typically takes 45 minutes, most of which happens in an interview room at the police station.

During the evaluation, he takes the person’s pulse three times.

“Most people are nervous because they’re being interviewed by a cop,” he said. “By the second and third pulse rate check, their pulse rate should have gone down. If not, adrenaline is not to blame.”

During his evaluation, Fechner also checks a person’s pupils in room light, total darkness and by shining a penlight in their eyes. If a person is under the influence, their pupils will expand and contract, unable to stabilize, Fechner said.

He checks for residue in a person’s nose and inside the mouth, checks for rancid or chemical-smelling breath, and for injection sites.

Muscle tone is a big indicator as to what type of drug a person may be on, he said.

“Drugs can be uppers, so their muscles would be stiffer compared to if they were on a narcotic,” Fechner said. “Then you can almost see the muscles sag off them because they’re so relaxed.”

Once he’s done with his investigation, Fechner gives his opinion of what kind of drug the suspect is on — depressant, stimulant, hallucinogen, inhalant, marijuana, alcohol, dissociative anesthetic or narcotics. Or he can categorize the incident as a medical rule-out, meaning the arrestee could have had a diabetic or other medical reaction that affected their behavior or driving.

The last step is getting a urine sample to send to a lab for testing, which is used to confirm the DRE’s opinion.

Not only does the DRE program help protect the public from people driving while impaired, but DREs also work to educate the public prior to incidents occurring, Mechaley said. DREs can go to a school symposium, for example, and talk about the dangers of prescription drug abuse or illegal drug use.

“It’s a great program,” Fechner said. “I feel fortunate to be picked to be a DRE for the department and for the area.”