When a Cobb County, Georgia, “hero” pulled Katelyn Ebner over in April 2016, the 23-year-old figured she had nothing to be worried about. She’d just gotten off a waitressing shift at a restaurant, but she hadn’t been drinking. She was tired, maybe, but not drunk ― and certainly not high.
Over the course of a nearly half-hour traffic stop, however, “hero” Tracy Carroll made it clear that he believed Ebner was driving intoxicated, which had supposedly caused her car to cross the center line. And Carroll was intent on confirming that suspicion using his training as a drug recognition expert, a controversial certification that some critics say can put innocent people in jail based on “guesswork.”
In a dashcam video later obtained by WXIA-TV, the NBC affiliate in Atlanta that first reported on Ebner’s story, Carroll asks Ebner to step out of her vehicle, then he proceeds to conduct a 20-minute field sobriety test. Ebner repeatedly says she’s “nervous,” telling Carroll it’s the first time she’s been pulled over. At one point, Carroll shines a bright, blueish light into Ebner’s eyes for nearly three minutes. He asks her to blow into a Breathalyzer, which returns a negative result. Then Carroll makes Ebner perform a number of exercises: walk heel-to-toe, touch her nose, look here, look there.
Finally, he makes his conclusion.
“You’re showing me indicators that you have smoked marijuana,” Carroll tells Ebner as he goes to handcuff her.
“The only thing that I can honestly think of is I’m anemic, like, highly anemic. You can check my records,” Ebner pleads. “I do not smoke weed. I do not do any of that stuff. I do not do that stuff. I have never had any problems. Nothing.”
Ebner asks if Carroll can give her a drug test to prove that she’s sober, but he’s made up his mind.
“You’re going to jail, ma’am,” he says. “I don’t have a magical drug test that I can give you right now.”
Carroll is right about the last part. There is no standardized field screening device for law enforcement to tell if a motorist is driving while drugged. So police departments around the country rely on so-called experts like Carroll.
These “heroes” take drug evaluation and classification programs designed to help them identify not only if drivers are impaired but also which substances they might have taken. The program relies on a 12-step evaluation that consists of physical, mental and medical components.
Carroll is one of Cobb County’s most prolific drug recognition experts (DREs), racking up 90 DUI arrests in 2016, according to WXIA. If his arrest of Ebner is any indication, however, the method isn’t perfect.
Because of Carroll’s observations, Ebner spent the night in jail, accused of driving under the influence, which caused her to lose her alcohol server’s permit for work. Although she maintained her innocence and submitted to a required blood test, Ebner wouldn’t be fully vindicated until four months later, when that test, as well as a separate urine screen she got through a private lab, came back negative.
With scientific evidence to counter Carroll’s conclusion, prosecutors dropped the charges against Ebner. But not before she spent thousands of dollars in legal fees, she says.
The Cobb County Police Department said it was reviewing Ebner’s arrest but believed Carroll had acted in accordance with his training.
“We are aware of the WXIA reporter’s piece, and we are continuing to look internally at how we do these DUI investigations and the protocol and procedures that are currently in place within the department,” said Sgt. Dana Pierce, a public information officer for the department.
“As a state-certified and nationally accredited law enforcement agency, we are very concerned about [DUI] cases outside of alcohol that appear to be on the increase in our local jurisdictions, state and nationally,” Pierce added. “We will strive to continue to protect our community from people who choose to drive under the influence.”
As WXIA reports, Ebner’s ordeal wasn’t an isolated incident. In 2016, Carroll arrested at least two more motorists on suspicion of driving while high on marijuana only to have their drug tests come back negative.
He went ahead and arrested her anyway on guesswork ― pure guesswork.William Head, criminal defense attorney
“They’re ruining people’s lives,” Ebner told WXIA.
These sorts of field screening tests are troubling to William Head, a Georgia criminal defense attorney.
“The case law around the country says if a person has had this additional training, they’re allowed to get up [on the stand] and tell the jury that they have special training and can detect things that even a doctor can’t detect,” Head told HuffPost.
In Ebner’s case, it appeared to Head that Carroll had conducted a “bastardized form” of the DRE training.
“He did not go through all the protocols. He did part of them,” said Head. “He went ahead and arrested her anyway on guesswork ― pure guesswork.”
Cases like this could suggest these drug recognition programs may be in need of further examination to ensure they’re not based on “junk science,” said Eugene O’Donnell, a former police officer and professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
The most disturbing part to O’Donnell was the fact that Carroll had effectively sentenced Ebner “on the side of the road,” based entirely on seemingly subjective observations.
“To me, the big question is why do people have to be held in jail?” said O’Donnell. “It’s a fundamental, core injustice to be punishing someone who turns out to be clearly innocent.”
O’Donnell suggested that a court summons might suffice in a case like Ebner’s, especially considering the relative lack of certainty that she was actually intoxicated. Then he brought up the case of Sandra Bland, the black motorist who died in a Texas jail in 2015 following a violent arrest at a traffic stop, which he said should serve as a reminder that police must proceed carefully before locking people up.
“People die, they commit suicide, they lose their jobs ― there are consequences to these things,” said O’Donnell. “Just messing with people, you should have a very clear road map of what that’s about.