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Portable drug test a new addition at New Year's DUI checkpoints

The upcoming New Year’s crackdown on drunken driving will include a new test for many people who are pulled over — an oral swab that checks for marijuana, cocaine and other drugs.

The voluntary swabbing has been used just 50 times this year. But Los Angeles City Atty. Mike Feuer is pushing to use it at more checkpoints and jails as officials try to limit the number of drivers impaired by substances other than alcohol.

“Traditionally, our office has focused on drunken driving cases,” Feuer said at a news conference Friday. “We’re expanding drug collection and aggressively enforcing all impaired-driving laws.”

Individuals arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs must submit to a blood test. But prosecutors said the eight-minute, portable oral fluids test could eventually become a more effective use of resources in drugged-driving cases.

The test screens for cocaine, benzodiazepine (Xanax), methamphetamine, amphetamines, narcotic analgesics, methadone and THC representative of marijuana usage within the past few hours. City prosecutors have yet to use results from the test as evidence in a case.

The city attorney's office filed 598 DUI cases in the last year that involved drugs, compared with 577 drunken driving cases during last year’s winter holiday period alone.

This year, about 1,520 people across Los Angeles County were arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol during the two weeks leading up to Christmas, local law enforcement agencies announced earlier this week.

The stepped-up enforcement will continue through New Year’s Day.

Checkpoints are expected Friday night in El Monte, Hawthorne, Pasadena, San Gabriel, Crenshaw, Industry and the western San Fernando Valley. On Saturday, checkpoints are to be set up in Arcadia, San Gabriel, Whittier, downtown L.A., Hollywood, Northridge, Redondo Beach, South L.A. and the west Valley again.

“The Los Angeles Police Department is giving fair warning to all New Year’s partyers,” police Cmdr. Andy Smith said. “We anticipate making a large number of arrests, unfortunately, as is the case every year.”

About 193,000 people annually statewide were arrested on DUI charges from 2003 to 2011, the most recent year for which data is available. On average each year during that span, 2,140 people were killed and 30,900 injured because of crashes that involved alcohol or drugs.

About 70% of DUI cases in Los Angeles County end in convictions. That's similar to the state average, though conviction rates range from 56% in San Francisco County to 85% in Ventura County.

Feuer, who took office in July, said city prosecutors reached convictions or guilty pleas in 99% of the 12,000 misdemeanor DUI cases brought since the beginning of the year. The city's conviction rate has been the same since at least 2010.

A first-time drunken driving conviction for people 21 and older can cost nearly $16,000 in fines, fees and auto insurance premium increases, according to the Automobile Club of Southern California.


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