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When the Nebraska State Patrol caught up to a California man driving erratically on Interstate 80 recently, a drug recognition expert was brought in for an evaluation.

Troopers clocked a Ford Mustang driven by 37-year-old Jonathan Suckow driving 4 mph on the interstate near Kearney, where the speed limit is 75 mph, according to a spokesman.

Suckow later sped up to 70 mph -- and then 147 mph -- before stopping near the Gibbon exit on April 20, the patrol said. He reportedly sped away again and was only stopped when troopers deployed spike strips near Wood River.

A state patrol drug recognition expert -- one of 113 law enforcement officers in the state who have gone through specialized training -- helped determine Suckow should be cited on suspicion of driving under the influence of drugs, not alcohol. The expert believed he was under the influence of a stimulant, a patrol spokesman said.

More than 30 law enforcement agencies across the state participate in the Drug Recognition Expert program, which started in California in the late 1970s as a way to help officers differentiate between alcohol-impaired driving and drug-impaired driving, said state patrol Capt. Martin Denton.

"Its general purpose is to determine, one, if there is impairment, if the impairment is being caused by one or more drugs, or if the impairment is because of a medical situation like a stroke or a diabetic episode," Denton said Wednesday.

Since 1991, state troopers, county sheriff's deputies and local police from all corners of Nebraska have enrolled in the "arduous" and intensive training program, which is led by the Nebraska Department of Transportation and 21 certified instructors.

It requires applicants to complete a 16-hour "preschool," which provides an overview of the program; 56 hours of detailed training in recognizing the seven categories of drugs, the physical symptoms of drug use, field procedures and how to testify in court; and 80 hours of field training under a certified supervisor.

Officers then must pass a written exam, which often takes four hours to complete, before they can gain certification. If they pass, they must complete eight hours of continuing education every two years to maintain the certification.

Denton said drug recognition experts are trained to spot pupil dilation caused by stimulants such as methamphetamine or cocaine, pupil constriction caused by narcotics and pain medications, as well as the physical symptoms of hallucinogens, inhalants and cannabis.

Built upon the same foundation as a field sobriety test, which is used to measure the impairment of suspected drunk drivers, Denton said various tests can work to include or exclude suspected drugs.

"It helps us come to the most logical conclusion about the drugs that are causing the impairment," he said.

While the number of alcohol-impaired driving offenses has dropped each year over the past decade, down from roughly 14,000 in 2008 to fewer than 6,900 in 2017, according to the Nebraska Commission on Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice, the share of suspected drugged drivers has risen.

About 10 percent of all impaired driving arrests last year involved drugs, according to the patrol, the first year in which the two offenses were recorded separately.

Denton said the increase in drugged driving may be attributed to a better understanding among officers of how various intoxicants affect a driver's physical and mental state.

"A drugged driver used to be more of a unique situation," he said. "The good news overall is the overall number of impaired drivers has gone down."

He said better education, citizen engagement, expanded ride-share options and social awareness have helped cut down on the number of impaired driving arrests, as well as "a higher degree of responsibility" by Nebraskans.

"We're fortunate to live in Nebraska," Denton said. "From a law enforcement standpoint, we have huge support and a great amount of respect, and we interact with a very reasonable population, which makes our job so much easier."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS.

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