Who wants to volunteer for a drug test at DUI checkpoints conducted by the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) on New Year’s Eve?
Officers will be handing out free mouth swabs at locations all around the city for the first time and those first-timers who fail the test for marijuana, methamphetamine, cocaine, methadone, Xanax and narcotic analgesics will be eligible to pay around $16,000 in fines, lawyer fees and insurance premium boosts.
City Attorney Mike Feuer told a press conference on Friday that the LAPD was expanding its traditional focus on drunk driving. “We’re expanding drug collection and aggressively enforcing all impaired-driving laws,” he said. Feuer pointed to the increased use of medical marijuana and anecdotal law enforcement experience to warn that stoned driving was an escalating safety problem.
“Drug collection” is a growth market with a high upside. Feuer’s office filed 598 DUI cases involving drugs during the last year, compared to 577 drunk driving cases alone during the brief holiday period in 2012. The portable oral fluids test with swabs were deployed at various times during the past year and used 50 times. But, according to the Los Angeles Times, the test results were never used in court because the accused pleaded out ahead of time.
Checkpoints at more than a dozen locations began to be put in place on Friday and will continue to be active through New Year’s Day. Those who consent to the test will have a swab inserted in their mouth between the gum line and cheek, where it will absorb saliva for at least three minutes. The swab is then inserted into a portable machine onsite and a preliminary assessment is available within eight minutes. The tests are only designed to detect drugs taken within a few hours of application.
It isn’t known if the testing procedure will allow LAPD to extract any other biometric data from the sample, in particular DNA. The accumulation and storage of DNA has become a privacy issue and in June the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling that police can collect the samples without a warrant from people arrested in connection with serious crimes. Justice Antonin Scalia warned at the time, “As an entirely predictable consequence of today's decision, your DNA can be taken and entered into a national DNA database if you are ever arrested, rightly or wrongly, and for whatever reason.”
As of September, 18 states had adopted zero-tolerance policies for stoned driving. California was not one of them. Saliva testing is relatively new and the science and law around it are still developing. Many in law enforcement have not totally embraced it, but the California vehicle code changes on January 1 and will explicitly make it illegal for any person to operate a vehicle while “under the influence of any drug.”
Advocates of roadside saliva tests hope testing in Los Angeles, Bakersfield, Sacramento and Fullerton will hasten its acceptance in court.