CNJ staff photo: Sharna Johnson Curry County Sheriff’s Deputy Bill Wanzor takes a suspect’s vital signs several times during an evaluation to determine what substance is impairing their ability to drive.
By Sharna Johnson: CNJ staff writer
Without ever drawing a drop of blood, Curry County Sheriff’s Deputy Bill Wanzor says he can pinpoint the types of substances coursing through a person’s veins.
A certified drug recognition expert, he says he can accomplish through a series of screening exercises and observation techniques what normally would require a blood sample and a laboratory.
Often, officers stop drivers who exhibit signs of impairment, but absent other probable cause, they are left with little recourse, he said.
“You have so many people out there driving, and you know there’s something wrong, but you can’t smell alcohol,” the officer of three years said.
“Before I went to school (for drug recognition), I turned away so many people that were impaired because I just didn’t know what to look for,” he said.
Now Wanzor’s observations and conclusions are recognized by the courts and can be used as probable cause to require lab analysis of a suspect.
In addition to his regular duties as a deputy, this summer Wanzor became the only certified DRE at the Curry County Sheriff’s Office, bringing the local total to three. One of the others serves with the state police and one with the Clovis police.
The technique was developed by the Los Angeles Police Department more than 20 years ago, he said.
So far he has been called on to screen approximately six suspects in Curry County. He is available to assist other deputies and officers with other agencies, he said.
Undersheriff Wesley Waller said Wanzor’s training, paid for by a state grant, is an asset to their department, which previously relied on DREs from other agencies.
“We were definitely at a disadvantage. There have been many times where we’ve been in a position where we were relying on the city and the state to assist us. Sometimes they had people available to assist us; sometimes they didn’t,” he said.
“For us it’s extremely valuable,” he added.
Using a battery of tests that expand on standard DWI field sobriety tests and checking vital signs, Wanzor looks for signs fitting one of seven categories:
And it’s not just users of illegal drugs officers want to keep from behind the wheel.
People often dismiss warnings on prescription drugs or don’t talk to their doctors about drug combinations that may impair their abilities, he said, especially seniors who are often on multiple prescriptions and may not realize they aren’t fit to drive.
“They think, well, they’re not drinking, so they’re OK to drive,” Wanzor said.
Or they don’t understand a small amount of alcohol mixed with some medications can severely impact their abilities, he explained.
His findings are forwarded to the lab to help specify the types of substances the suspect may have in his or her body.
Suspects are often skeptical and dismissive until he reaches the conclusion, he said. “They’re kind of shocked… By then they’ve kind of figured out that you know what you are doing.”
How it works:
He instructs the suspects to close their eyes for 30 seconds. They are told to touch their nose with alternating fingertips. A penlight is shone in their eyes and their blood pressure taken. All the while Wanzor is taking notes on his clipboard.
While conducting his tests, which take about an hour, he notes a fast heart rate and raised blood pressure from stimulants, or tightened pupils, an indication of pain killers. He also looks for other clues of drug use, such as injection sites, muscle rigidity, coordination problems and poor comprehension of instructions.
When a suspect on stimulants is asked to imagine the passing of 30 seconds, Wanzor said their eyes open after mere seconds. But a person on depressants typically needs to be told time is up.
One test by itself is inconclusive, but by the time he has run through the battery, Wanzor said he can identify one or multiple substances with accuracy.