Pubdate: Sat, 11 Aug 2012
Source: Record Searchlight (Redding, CA)
Copyright: 2012 Record Searchlight
Author: Jenny Espino


It was still light outside on a Thursday in July when officer Jacob
Provencio left the downtown Redding police station to start patrol
duties in the surrounding blocks.

MarketFest, the popular music festival that concluded its season last
week, was due to end in about an hour. The crowds already were
dispersing, and Provencio deliberately scanned the streets for
vehicles speeding by or rolling through stop signs.

Provencio wasn't only on the lookout for drunken drivers.

Driving-under-the-influence cases, in which the substance involved is
drugs and not alcohol, are his specialty. And the prevalence has
become more common in the north state.

Of Provencio's DUI arrests on Redding streets these days, one of four
is strictly drugs, illicit or prescribed. Half of the arrests he makes
involve a combination of drugs and alcohol.

"Sometimes it's people who are taking their prescribed medications.
Sometimes it's people who are abusing prescription medications. There
was a time when I was taking more pills off the street than I was
methamphetamine," said Provencio, who as a certified expert has an
accuracy of 94 percent detecting the many drugs that can cause a
driver to be impaired by his observations.

The police force has four certified drug-recognition experts.
Provencio and a colleague became the first officers to receive
training and certification in 2008. They now also serve as
instructors, helping fellow officers put their finger on why some
drivers whose breath does not smell of alcohol appear impaired.

But even as the training is playing a direct role in boosting arrest
numbers, prosecutions are moving at a slow speed in Shasta County.

It takes an average of eight to nine months for toxicology results to
return from the California Department of Justice's lab in Sacramento.

"I don't think it's ever been as bad as it is right now," said
Anne-Berit Condit, a victim advocate from the Shasta County chapter of
Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

In recent months, Condit said she has received numerous calls from
victims or their families who were affected by drug-involved accident
injuries and fatalities, many of them frustrated by delays in the
processing of cases.

The county has had a series of high-profile crashes involving drugs.
They are believed to have played a role in the deaths of two
middle-aged women and in the serious injuries of two young sisters.

Even without delays, the turnaround for blood or urine samples is
three months. The samples are sent to a Redding lab for analysis, then
they are sent to the state toxicology lab for an initial screening.
Prosecutors look at the results and resend them to Sacramento for
further testing.

Toxicology results in the crash that killed Susan Pai Allen, the
52-year-old Cottonwood woman who was picking blackberries on Riverland
Drive last August, took 10 months to return.

The analysis showed Charles James Pratt, who is facing vehicular
manslaughter while intoxicated and DUI causing great bodily injury
charges, did not have any alcohol in his system but tested positive
for marijuana and opiates. A trial is set for Nov. 14.

Pending cases

The district attorney's office also is reviewing a felony vehicular
manslaughter charge filed in the Feb. 27 crash on Lake Boulevard that
killed Sharon Nolan, 58.

In that crash, police identified Jessica Jade Myers, 31 at the time of
the crash, as the driver of a westbound pickup that attempted to turn
left from Lake Boulevard onto Santa Rosa Way. The pickup slammed
head-on into an eastbound sedan in which Nolan was a back-seat
passenger. She wore a seat belt but did not wear a shoulder restraint.

Lab results still are pending in the case of the Palo Cedro man whose
two young daughters were severely injured in a March 16 crash on Gas
Point Road in Cottonwood.

A tentative date of Aug. 28 has been set in the trial of Nicolaas Alan
Myrtle, who lost control of his car and hit a concrete bridge abutment.

He admitted to smoking marijuana several hours before the 8:45 p.m.
crash, according to police reports. Officers also said they found two
prescription bottles for methadone and Alprazolam (Xanax) in his car.
The report said he uses methadone for back pain and the other
medication for anxiety.

Unlike drunken driving cases in which a blood alcohol concentration of
.08 or greater proves a driver has hit the legal limit and does not
belong on the road, there is no legal threshold in drug-related cases.

Hard to pin down

There is another catch: Test results can show a drug was in the
system, but determining impairment at the time of the arrest is a
different story. Often it falls on the officer to prove the impairment
in court.

Kalin Johnson, a deputy district attorney assigned to the DUI
caseload, expressed confidence in the officers making the right call.

"What I have noticed is that we have much better-trained officers who
can detect the drugs," she said. "They see the driver acting funny.
They don't smell alcohol. ... (The officers) are looking for
physiological symptoms."

That training, she said, has led to strong conviction rates in the

The district attorney's office does not track DUI cases by drugs and
alcohol separately, and it does test for the presence of drugs in
cases in which the blood alcohol content is high. Yet, Johnson
estimates 10 percent to 20 percent of the cases submitted to the
office in the past two years involved drugs.

They can range from the dental patient who took a Vicodin and decided
to get behind the wheel to those addicted to illegal drugs,
painkillers or other prescription medication that can impair their
judgment and motor skills.

It is all part of a state DUI trend.

"We are seeing quite a bit more (of drugged driving) in the state,"
said Brenda Franchiseur, state executive director of MADD.

In all, prosecutors brought to court 1,192 misdemeanor DUI cases,
which resulted in 1,130 convictions in the last federal fiscal year,
from Oct. 1, 2010 to Sept. 30, 2011.

Standing out to law enforcement officials in the county is a rise in
the quantity of drugs with which some drivers are being prescribed.

"It's all lawfully prescribed, but they might be taking eight
medications," said Johnson, who is in regular contact with police
officers and sheriff's deputies to ask what they are seeing on the

The rate of felony charges that led to convictions in the county
exceeded 96 percent for that fiscal year, 79 of 82. It was one of the
highest in the state, which is why the prosecutor's office for two
fiscal years now has received a federal grant to pay an attorney to
work on felony DUI cases.

Already, the office has received word it will be awarded a $220,000
grant for the upcoming year, said Josh Lowery, chief deputy district

"We work hard to be successful in this area for public safety
reasons," he said, "and to take some (budgetary) pressure off the county."

During this fiscal year ending on Sept. 30, 774 of 806 misdemeanor
cases and 44 of 46 felony cases have resulted in convictions.

Victims frustrated by delays

But the lengthy wait for test results to move the cases forward is
unacceptable to victim advocates.

"We have bigger cases, less money and more cutbacks. I feel the
frustration of the victims. They have been victimized once, and they
continue to be victimized," Condit said. Last week at a training
session about drugged driving, Condit planned to ask whether the state
could give priority to lab analysis in connection to a fatality.

Jeff Gorder, Shasta County public defender whose office handles about
half of the DUI cases, said there are more gray areas with cases
involving drugs, and proving impairment takes more evidence.

"They might have a prescription for oxycodone or marijuana. It is not
merely by having that in their system that they are guilty," said
Gorder, adding that some drugs stay in a person's system for days.

Much will depend, too, on how they performed in a field sobriety

Historically, Shasta County has ranked at the top in DUI arrests per

But as is the case with most law enforcement agencies across the
country, Redding does not separate DUIs by the substance causing
impairment. So, a total number for the arrests involving drugs is

Yet national studies and roadside surveys provide a snapshot of the
DUIs involving drugs, which some say were always there but were

Nearly a quarter of California's 1,458 fatally injured drivers tested
for the presence of drugs were positive, according to 2010 figures
reviewed by the California Office of Traffic Safety.

Nationally, drugs were involved in one of five driver deaths in 2009,
according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. But
it is an incomplete picture. Only 63 percent of 21,798 fatalities in
the country were tested.

Even though only a portion of drivers killed in crashes are tested for
drugs, trends show the percentage with positive results steadily
increased, from 13 percent in 2005 to 18 percent four years later.

Three of 7 drivers killed in Shasta County tested positive. Two other
drivers who were killed were not tested for the presence of drugs. The
year before, the county had three driver deaths in which drugs were

The California Department of Motor Vehicle's 10-year summary of DUIs
shows drug-involved crash fatalities rose by 63 percent during the
past decade.

Cases steadily had been on the rise through the mid-2000s. There were
428 in 2000. The number more than doubled to 880 in 2005. Since that
year, fatalities have dropped to 696 in 2010.

The report, released in May, also showed injuries increased by about
25 percent. The number dropped to 2,227 in 2008 then climbed to 2,309
the next year and 2,384 in 2010. Still, those numbers have come off
their highs in 2005 of 2,722. Alcohol was involved in some of those

The person more likely to get behind the wheel while under the
influence of an illicit drug or alcohol was a young man between the
ages of 21 and 25, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and

Marijuana is the most prevalent illegal drug detected in impaired
drivers, fatally injured drivers and crash victims. Benzodiazepines,
cocaine, opiates and amphetamines also are implicated, the National
Institute on Drug Abuse reports.

Provencio, the Redding DUI police officer, said he and fellow law
enforcement officers make drug-related arrests on all ages.

It was after 8 p.m. when he made his second traffic stop of the night
in the 1100 block of Placer Street.

An old recreational vehicle with a Washington license plate on top of
another pulled over to the side of the road.

As Provencio talked to the motorist, he noticed his eyes looked pink.
The man admitted to smoking marijuana several hours earlier.

Provencio shined a light in his eyes and observed his coordination
during a field sobriety test. There was nothing out of the ordinary.
After asking him questions about his activities of the day, he sent
the man on his way.

The driver was still parked when a young man approached Provencio
about finding drugs on the window sill of a building a block away.

Provencio inspected the area before he collected a razor and white
crystals wrapped in aluminum foil. A forensic drug testing kit
confirmed it was methamphetamine. On the market, it would have been
worth about $10, he said.

Testing is tricky

To be sure, there are more tools to prove impairment, but they don't
come easy or fast.

One of the most common drugs Redding officers identify in
impaired-driving cases is methadone. Initial screenings of blood or
urine samples sent to a lab return negative, which is why prosecutors
need to send the samples back to Sacramento for further testing. The
same applies for certain depressants.

"There are so many prescriptions out there that to come out with a
roadside test for every one I would imagine would be impossible,"
Provencio said.

Sometimes in proving impaired driving, it simply comes down to how
well the officer can explain in court what led up to the arrest,
making the training to become a drug recognition expert that much more

What they do amounts to a "mini-medical analysis," said Johnson,
noting that officers, who are trained, are checking for physiological
symptoms, such as the driver's pulse, temperature and their eye reaction.

Stimulants cause the eye pupils to dilate, while narcotics cause them
to constrict. Marijuana can dilate the pupils, although it affects
people differently. Throw in the depressants, and some will dilate the
pupils; others will leave them normal, Provencio said.

A few months ago, Provencio was called to Winco Foods for a report of
a woman who appeared to be intoxicated as she pulled into the parking

Based on the vehicle description he received, Provencio spotted her on
Hilltop Drive. She was drifting across the lane lines. She was not
signaling, and she failed to stop at a red light before she turned.

As he talked to her, he could see her eyes drooping and popping back
open, an indication she either had used narcotics or recently used
marijuana, he said.

It turned out she was a longtime methamphetamine user, and officers
were unable to obtain a urine sample from her in jail despite giving
her plenty of water to drink.

A blood sample was equally unsuccessful. Two nurses, a phlebotomist
and a lab technician had trouble hitting a vein that had not hardened.

"It didn't change anything. We still arrested her. We still sent the
case through, and she will be prosecuted without any toxicology. We
couldn't get any," Provencio said. "But based on what I saw and the
training and experience I have, I am confident I can explain to a
judge or a jury not only that she was impaired but what she was
impaired by."

Frachiseur said the trend in DUIs prompted the call for a two-day
training last week in Los Angeles. Victim advocates specifically have
seen a spike in Ambien and marijuana cases.

"This is new territory," Frachiseur said, describing the issue as a
"large epidemic in the state."

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Shasta County DUI cases

Oct. 1, 2010-Sept. 30, 2011

1,192: Misdemeanors prosecuted

1,130: Misdemeanor convictions

82: Felonies prosecuted

79: Felony convictions

Oct. 1, 2011-June 30, 2012

806: Misdemeanors prosecuted

774: Misdemeanor convictions

46: Felonies prosecuted

44: Felony convictions

Source: Shasta County District Attorney's Office
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