LAPD sets up drug detection swab test at checkpoints

Saliva tests can detect recent drug use, but critics say they don't determine intoxication level

A man is given a field sobriety test after he was stopped by San Bruno Police officers at a DUI checkpoint Nov. 27, 2006 in San Bruno, California.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The Los Angeles police department has announced a New Year’s crackdown on intoxicated drivers – with checkpoints to be set up across the county complete with breathalyzers and cheek swab tests that can detect recent drug use, the L.A. Times reported.

Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer told CBS L.A. he believes drugged drivers are on the rise due to legalized medical marijuana, adding that the city attorney’s office will employ two full-time deputy city attorneys to prosecute DUI cases involving narcotics.

Civil rights groups and attorneys have expressed concern because the swab test, which shows recent use of drugs including Xanax, marijuana, and cocaine, does not necessarily determine intoxication or an impaired ability to drive.

“Traditionally, our office has focused on drunken driving cases,” Feuer said at a press conference Friday. “We’re expanding drug collection and aggressively enforcing all impaired-driving laws.”

Police set up checkpoints in L.A. County over the weekend to try out the swab tests on a large scale ahead of the holiday. A $500,000 federal grant awarded to the L.A. City Attorney’s office will allow regular use of the test in 2014, according to Southern California Public Radio.

The eight-minute, portable saliva test is voluntary – but if it is refused, and the police have probable cause to suspect drug or alcohol use, they can make an arrest. At that point, the test is still considered "voluntary," but if refused will result in loss of the driver’s license.

A positive blood test will still be required for a "driving under the influence" (DUI) conviction under law. City prosecutors have not used results from the test as evidence in a case yet.

“The portable drug test machine claims that it can differentiate between THC used in the last several hours. However, for one to be guilty of driving under the influence of a drug, one must actually be under the influence of said drug,” California attorney Stephanie M. Arrache wrote on her website.

“What this means is that your abilities must be negatively affected by the drug. Having therapeutic levels in your system does not automatically place you in an illegal position,” she said.

The oral test detects trace amounts of drug use that hide in a person’s saliva – and these trace amounts last for up to a few days, depending on the drug. Cocaine and marijuana last up to 24 hours, meth and ecstasy last up to three days, and alcohol traces last for just 12 hours, according to a report in LAist.

The voluntary swabbing has only been used 50 times in 2013, but Feuer is pushing to use it more at checkpoints and jails. Bakersfield, Sacramento, and Fullerton have also used the swab tests, the L.A. Times reported.

A DUI conviction may result in the loss of a driver’s license, and between $5,000 and 8,000 in fines, not including lawyer’s fees, Deputy City Attorney Michelle de Casa warned.

In 2013, about 1,520 people in L.A. County were arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol during the two weeks before Christmas, local law enforcement agencies announced last week.

Research shows alcohol-related accidents are reduced by an average of 20 percent when well-publicized checkpoints are conducted, the LAPD said on its website. Statistics show that 30 percent of drivers in fatal crashes had one or more drugs in their systems, according to the site.  

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