BRIDGEWATER, Mass. — Police officers in Massachusetts are catching more impaired drivers under the influence of drugs at a faster rate than even drunk drivers, according to statewide statistics obtained by FOX25 Investigates. “Drugged driving” violations are up 42 percent since 2011, compared to a 26 percent increase in drunk driving violations issued over the same time period.
Michael Carfagna, 39, was walking along Washington St. in Weymouth when an out of control car hit another vehicle and then slammed into Carfagna.
“I don’t remember much of it. I guess I was hit from behind,” said Carfagna.
Prosecutors said the driver, Thomas Mohan, 51, was under the influence of both drugs and alcohol. A witness recorded video of Mohan falling on his face during a field sobriety test after the crash.
But Carfagna paid the greatest price.
“I suffered a brain hemorrhage, plastic surgery on my nose, I had a trach in my throat, I had a torn aorta, fractured diaphragm, a lacerated liver, broken ribs,” said Carfagna. “He's really altered my life and my family's life.”
Mothers Against Drunk Driving estimates about 4,000 drivers in the U.S. are killed each year with drugs in their systems.
Drug Recognition Experts
While thousands of Massachusetts residents are legally allowed to use marijuana for medical purposes, there is no “legal limit” for how much of the drug they’re allowed to have in their system while driving.
Even when a driver has failed a field sobriety test and is already under arrest, police say making charges stick can be difficult if the driver passes a breathalyzer test for alcohol.
“You’re like, ‘what do you do?’ The law says you have to release them,” said North Andover Police Sgt. Dan Crevier.
In those instances, more police departments are seeking the assistance of certified Drug Recognition Experts (DRE’s). North Andover PD has three of them, including Officer Jason Wedge, who are able to perform a complex series of tests on a suspect to determine what type of drug is making them impaired.
The tests involve 12 steps, including measurement of pupils, blood pressure, and temperature.
“It’s a lot harder for an individual to fight the OUI-drug aspect of it with a Drug Recognition Expert’s testimony,” said Wedge.
Wedge told FOX25 Investigates he’s encountering more drivers who appear to be under the influence of marijuana and opiates.
“It's getting to the point where now people are OD'ing in vehicles and getting in car accidents,” said Wedge.
Shortage of Experts
Wedge is one of 111 active certified DRE’s in Massachusetts, but many in law enforcement say that’s not nearly enough.
FOX25 Investigates attended part of a two-week training course for officers hoping to be certified as Drug Recognition Experts. Those who pass a six-hour final essay exam must also correctly evaluate several subjects under the influence of drugs before being certified.
Sgt. Don Decker is the State DRE Coordinator in Massachusetts.
“We actually have over 100 data points that we're looking at. It's not just, ‘you know what, the guy has bloodshot eyes, he's drunk,’” said Decker.
Proponents of the DRE program say the test is also effective at exonerating drivers who might suffer from medical conditions that give the appearance of drug or alcohol impairment.
If Massachusetts voters decide to legalize recreational use of marijuana in November, Decker acknowledges there may be even greater need for DRE’s, but he says their mission won’t change.
“What we want to do is keep (impaired) people off the road,” said Decker.
Decker and others point out that findings of DRE officers have withstood court challenges in California, New York, Arizona, Minnesota, Colorado and Florida, but defense attorneys expect challenges in Massachusetts as well.
“It comes down to the reliability of the police officer's testimony,” said trial attorney Kevin Colmey. “These officers undergo a few weeks of training and they are certainly not doctors. And a large part of what's being done in these DRE exams is medical-type questioning and medical-type testing.”
By law, Massachusetts drivers under the suspicion of impaired driving who refuse a breath or blood test for alcohol can lose their license.
The same “implied consent” does not apply to the test given by a Drug Recognition Expert.
“If a person says ‘I'm not going to take your testing,’ they don't lose their license. Nothing happens to them,” said Decker.
He’s among those who want to see OUI laws changed to make the DRE test part of “implied consent.”
Victims, such as Michael Carfagna, say they only hope more people who’ve used drugs or consumed alcohol will make the decision to not drive in the first place.
“Don't do it. Don't do it. It's not worth it,” said Carfagna.