Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

March 1, 2013

Driving under the influence of drugs: Bill aims to empower police with more authority to check suspected motorists

Bluefield Daily Telegraph

CHARLESTON — That drug abusers are prevalent in every nook and cranny of West Virginia these days is no secret.

Given the ubiquitous nature of the societal ill, the question arises: How safe are highways, assuming many in a chemical high are behind the wheel?

No one can rightly say, but House Speaker Rick Thompson, D-Wayne, is solidly behind the newest wrinkle in the war on drugs, a bill sought by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to empower police officers with more authority to check out suspected motorists.

Co-sponsored with Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, the legislation (HB2513) would let any officer of the law to compel a driver to provide a blood sample, if there is reasonable cause for a suspicion of drug abuse while operating a motor vehicle.

Thompson says the bill would let any police officer, in any state, county or municipal agency, force the drawing of blood to see if drugs are in the driver’s system.

Right now, a breathalyzer can be used to determine alcohol, but Thompson says this is futile when looking for drugs.

“The breathalyzer doesn’t show it,” he said Thursday.

While the officer may file a standard DUI charge, once in the courtroom, his evidence would be limited to what he observed.

“What this bill would do is give an extra tool for evidentiary evidence similar to the breathalyzer, some kind of test to see if this person is under the influence of drugs, something that could be used in court,” the House speaker said.

“Right now, they’re losing some of those cases we feel like they could win if they were able to get this forensic evidence being able to prove it.”

And, the tests could work to the advantage of the motorist under suspicion, he pointed out.

“If somebody is not guilty of driving under the influence of drugs, it could also be evidence that they weren’t,” he said.

“For that reason, I think it’s a good bill.”

Tomblin called for such legislation in his State of the State message, saying he wanted police officers to have implied consent in efforts to free roadways of impaired drivers.

“We know that driving under the influence of alcohol is a serious problem, but so is driving under the influence of drugs,” he said in his Feb. 13 address.

Thompson acknowledged that the bill must pass constitutional muster and this is why it will go through an intense process.

“But the concept of the bill is basically what I’m saying we can support and get it where it’s constitutional and legal,” he said.

“That’s the job of these committees and the lawyers we have working here. I think they’ll be able to find a solution to that. I’ll have to see what their product is once they get it to me.”

The measure now rests with House Judiciary Chairman Tim Miley, D-Harrison.

Under the proposed legislation, blood samples could only be taken by a doctor of medicine or osteopathy, registered nurse or trained medical technician, at the place of their employment, at the request of the officer.

“I think it’s more than we realize,” Thompson said of drug-impaired drivers.

“Police are saying we need this extra tool to be able to combat this. I think it’s something we should give them.”