Glynn County Police officer Kevin Yarborough figured out quickly that the man who caused a two-vehicle collision Wednesday on Walker Road had been drinking, noting “an odor of alcoholic beverage” in his arrest report.
This is standard police work, an observation that appears all too often in officers’ daily reports.
But the 30-year-old man also was allegedly behind the wheel while messed up on drugs, a crime that may have been overlooked if officer Yarborough had not been on the scene. The next section of Yarborough’s report on the incident gets complicated, detailing abnormal eye movements such as “sustained nystagmus” and “lack of smooth pursuit,” among other clues.
As a result, Yarborough concluded, “it is my professional opinion as a Drug Recognition Expert that (the suspect) is under the influence of a CNS Depressant, a Narcotic Analgesic and a CNS Stimulant,” the report said. The suspect remained Friday in the Glynn County Detention Center, charged with “driving under the influence of multiple substances” and several other charges.
Driving while high on drugs is just as big of a public safety threat as driving drunk, police say. But it often takes an expert opinion to make a charge of DUI/drugs hold up in court.
Yarborough is one of the best. Proof of this came on April 25, when Yarborough was recognized as the State of Georgia Drug Recognition Expert of the Year for 2016. Yarborough received the honor in Atlanta during the 13th Annual Golden Shield Honors Award Banquet, presented by the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety and MADD Georgia.
“It was unbelievably gratifying to receive this award,” Yarborough said. “I was speechless. To get the highest recognition in the state for one of the most respected and strenuous courses in law enforcement was truly an honor.”
Yarborough is one of more than 200 law enforcement officers statewide who are certified as drug recognition experts. The intensive certification course lasts for several weeks and instructs officers on proven scientific indicators of drug impairment. Final certification requires a trip to Phoenix, Ariz., for a grueling day-long test. Yarborough first earned his certification three years ago.
The 15-year law enforcement veteran is a member of the police department’s Highway Enforcement of Aggressive Traffic (HEAT) team, which operates through grants from the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety. Fellow Glynn County Police HEAT team member Matthew Dixon also is a certified drug recognition expert.
Drivers impaired by alcohol typically display some obvious indications of their condition, including a smell and slurred speech. A breathalyzer test to measure the level of alcohol consumed can produce quick results.
While driving under the influence of narcotics and other drugs can be just as dangerous, the indications are often more subtle, Yarborough explained. But to the trained eye, signs of drug impairment can be documented by scientific fact, not just conjecture, he said.
“You have some substances that will not give you the same clues of impairment,” Yarborough said. “You know something’s wrong with them, that they are not right. But the police officer might not be able to put his finger on it. Drug recognition goes deeper than just the obvious signs of impairment to the actual vital signs, eye movements, pupil ranges and other details that determine if a driver should be operating a vehicle or not.”
Yarborough conducted 69 drug evaluations in 2016. All but five of those evaluations resulted in an arrest. Perhaps most memorable last year was the role Yarborough played in the arrest of a shrimp boat captain whose 67-foot vessel became entangled in the St. Simons Pier last September.
U.S. Coast Guard and state Department of Natural Resources officers who boarded the High Tide immediately afterward were certain the boat’s captain was impaired, but he did not appear to be drinking.
“I determined we were going to need a drug recognition expert,” DNR Corporal Kate Hargrove wrote in her report.
The call went to Yarborough and officer Dixon, who were brought aboard the boat.
“They knew something was not right, and we determined that he should be charged with boating under the influence,” Yarborough said. “The average officer might not have seen the right indicators to get a strong case.”
But Yarborough does not measure his success by how many arrests he can chalk up. He is more concerned with educating folks about the dangers of drugging and driving, thereby reducing the number of impaired drivers who are on the road in the first place.
Some people on the road are taking prescribed narcotic medication under a doctor’s supervision, perhaps unaware they are impaired and a threat to public safety, he said.
“I understand some people need medication on a day-to-day basis to function,” said Yarborough, a Brunswick native and a graduate of Brunswick High. “And I can say, ‘Look, this is why you should not be driving.’ A lot them thank us, and they get back in touch with their doctors. They just didn’t know.”
Yarborough has even earned praise from some of those he arrested. That trip to jail is often the last straw that led them to recovery from drug addition.
“I’ve got plenty of people who came and thanked me,” he said. “They say just that one time is what helped turn them around to get the help they needed. We prefer a voluntary compliance. If we can get you to do the right thing without incarceration, that’s a win-win. That’s the reason we do this. We take pride in it because we can actually see the results.”