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La. testing new tool to detect drugs in impaired drivers near New Orleans

Researchers said the new tool, oral fluid testing, would be cheaper for law enforcement agencies, require less training and allow investigators to determine a driver’s impairment through minimally invasive methods

Louisiana is testing a new tool to detect drugs in impaired drivers near New Orleans

A California officer demonstrates the use of a mouth swab for drug testing. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Rich Pedroncelli/AP

By Brendan Heffernan
The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate

SHREVEPORT, La. — Louisiana may be ahead of the curve when it comes to cracking down on drug-impaired driving thanks to a team of researchers in Shreveport.

In 2022, Gov. John Bel Edwards’ Driving While Intoxicated task force approved a pilot program that would study if oral fluid testing on drivers suspected of being drug-impaired would serve as a useful tool for law enforcement.

The pilot program run by the North Louisiana Criminalistics Laboratory collected more than 100 voluntary samples from drivers stopped by the St. Charles Parish Sheriff’s Office from July to December 2023.

The study has found that oral fluid testing presents a way of screening for drug impairment that can be done quicker and less invasively, according to North Louisiana Crime Lab System Director Joey Jones.

“The biggest problem we have as toxicologists is that when a crash occurs, when there’s bad driving, that’s the moment of suspected impairment, so with that it starts a time clock,” Jones said. “When we started talking about doing this the biggest advantage we saw was getting a specimen closer to the incident.”

In the study, drivers who were pulled over on suspicion of being under the influence of drugs agreed to have their mouths swabbed by an officer. The oral fluid collection typically happened after a driver had completed a standard field sobriety test and had been taken back to the station, Jones said.

Once the swabs held enough material to be successfully tested, deputies were trained to put the swab in a preserving solution before the samples were shipped to Shreveport. Jones said they chose to tie to program to St. Charles Parish to make sure that samples could be successfully tested after being transported a great distance.

“The best part about this is that they can collect the specimen, take it to the mail and get it up here to us and we don’t have to worry about stability and loss of compounds,” Jones said. " St. Charles is about as far away from here as you can get, so it really allowed us to address as much as possible.”

This process gives toxicologists a sample taken much sooner after a traffic stop or accident than is possible with blood testing. Blood drug impairment screenings require a judge to approve a search warrant, and in most jurisdictions in the state, the blood drawing must be done at a hospital, according to recently retired St. Charles Parish Sheriff’s Captain George Breedy.

“In some of these rural parishes, the nearest hospital may be two hours away and who knows if someone there will be able or willing to take blood from your defendant,” Breedy said. “The oral fluid sample can be taken anywhere.”

The study compared the North Louisiana Crime Lab toxicologists’ analysis of the mouth swabs to blood samples of the same individuals analyzed by the State Police. In one sample, the crime lab found evidence of cocaine impairment that didn’t show up in the state police’s analysis of the detainee’s blood.

“This type of testing is very very cutting edge,” Jones said. “This is looking like a genuine substitute to blood testing.”

Jones plans to recommend to the governor’s DWI task force that oral fluid testing be added to the list of impairment screenings that officers can administer without having to obtain a warrant.

Breedy said that oral fluid testing would be cheaper for law enforcement agencies, require less training and allow investigators to determine a driver’s impairment through minimally invasive methods. Breedy plans to help train officers around the state on how to administer oral fluid tests.

“It could change how we do DWI screening,” Breedy said. “Oral fluid screening is much less invasive and we see the courts becoming more concerned with the most invasive approaches: using a needle on someone. Most agencies also can’t afford to have a law enforcement officer out of the field for the training that’s absolutely necessary for them to be drawing blood from people. With this, we’re talking about a half-hour of training and it requires no special skills.”


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