The white Ford pickup came to an abrupt stop at a Hilton Head Island traffic light.
When the light turned green, a Beaufort County sheriff's deputy followed the driver.
The pickup was drifting in and out of its lane and almost struck the curb and median several times, according to police reports.
Suspecting the driver was drunk, the deputy pulled the 19-year-old island man over. He had the driver perform field sobriety tests, the kind done on the side of the road.
The driver failed two of the three and was placed under arrest for driving under the influence.
But back at the station, there was a surprise.
The driver submitted to a breath test that showed his blood-alcohol level was .02, well below South Carolina's legal limit of .08. The suspect was not too drunk to drive.
That didn't seem to jibe with his erratic driving that morning, July 12, when he also allegedly ran off the road and knocked down a traffic sign minutes before the officer saw him.
In situations like this, when a driver suspected of being impaired passes a breath test for alcohol intoxication, officers now have another tool at their disposal: a certified drug recognition expert trained to search for symptoms of drug use.
Beaufort County has four such officers. They include two sheriff's deputies, a Bluffton police officer and a Beaufort police officer. Walterboro and the state Transport Police each have one expert.
The six officers are on a rotation, pitching in to administer the hour-long examinations at any law enforcement agency that needs help.
During the July 12 incident, Sgt. Timothy Slupski was called to perform the exam, which includes testing the suspect's eyes, pulse, blood pressure, muscle tone and attention.
The specially-trained officers can use the test to identify which of the seven drug categories the suspect may have taken: depressants, stimulants, hallucinogens, anesthetics, narcotics, inhalants or cannabis. Often, they find drivers who are "poly-drugging," or taking multiple substances.
In the case of the pickup driver,, Slupski's examination revealed the suspect probably had smoked marijuana and taken depressants, authorities said.
He was charged with driving under the influence, the same charge faced by a drunk driver.
It will be some time before officers know if the charge will stand up. Everyone who undergoes the drug examination and is suspected of being under the influence is asked to provide a urine sample that is tested by the State Law Enforcement Division, a process that generally takes between four and six weeks.
Officers trained to conduct the examinations say their process of taking vital signs, looking deep into the suspect's eyes and the lengthy interview has an 80 percent accuracy rate.
"Before, when a person blew a double goose egg (on the breath test for alcohol), you were sort of scratching your head," said Beaufort police officer Billy Lewis.
Now, most officers know who to call.
A DEMANDING COURSE
The drug recognition expert program was developed by Los Angeles police officers in the 1970s. The police department accepted the program as reliable in 1979, and the procedures gradually spread.
Today, about 6,000 officers are certified as drug recognition experts by the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
In South Carolina, a handful of officers began seeking certification in 2002.
The first local officers took the two-week course in 2006.
Before seeking certification, officers must first have advanced training in field sobriety tests and other areas of driving under the influence.
To be accepted in the certification program, the officers also must get a letter of recommendation from an officer already trained in the field and obtain permission from the head of their department and, in the case of South Carolina, the solicitor in their judicial circuit.
The training is extensive. The course lasts for two weeks. Graduates are then tested, typically at the Maricopa County Jail in Arizona, where they perform drug examinations on at least
12 incoming prisoners. The officers must correctly identify the category of drug the inmates are using at least 75 percent of the time.
Lewis, a Clemson University graduate, said the training was as challenging as an upper-level college course.
"The actual (drug recognition expert) program is by far the most challenging and demanding training I've done," said Slupski of the sheriff's office.
SUFFICIENT TRAINING ?
As with any sobriety test, a drug examination is voluntary.
But if the suspect declines any portion of the test -- as is true with the initial field sobriety test and breath test -- state law requires his driver's license be suspended for 90 days.
Of the approximately 100 tests administered locally by Lewis and Officer David Kopenhaver of the Bluffton Police Department, only one person has refused.
The tests cleared six suspected impaired drivers, allowing them to be released on minor traffic charges or no charges at all, the officers said.
The Beaufort County Sheriff's Office would not permit its officers to talk about how often they administer the sobriety test or anything beyond how drug recognition experts are trained.
Some defense attorneys say they don't believe the amount of training officers undergo is sufficient.
"A few hours of training does not make them an expert," said defense attorney Sam Bauer. "This is something fairly new that we're seeing in Beaufort County, but whether or not someone is on drugs or alcohol doesn't matter. The questions is whether they're impaired on any substance, and the best way to determine that is to properly administer a field sobriety test."
There are some doubts about whether police officers properly administer field sobriety tests.
After watching "thousands" of videotapes of field sobriety tests over a 17-year period, Bauer estimates only 5 percent of local officers do.
A 1994 study by a Clemson University professor had 21 completely sober people perform field sobriety tests. The videotape was then shown to 14 police officers, who identified the sober subjects as too drunk to drive 46 percent of the time.
"I think the citizens have to remember that they're given their rights for a reason and that protection exists to protect the innocent," Bauer said. "If you're pulled over by a law enforcement officer, you should comply with request for officer safety and your own safety, but you don't have to provide any information to the officer that can be misused to prove you're guilty even when you're not."
OFF TO A GOOD START?
Hardly a week goes by in Beaufort County that a drug recognition expert isn't called in to work a case.
It's time-consuming work.
Building a strong drunken driving case takes about two hours from the time a car is pulled over. Building a case that the driver was on drugs takes nearly four.
The officers work on a rotation so they don't get burned out or get rousted out of bed at 3 a.m. too often.
"The program's definitely in its infancy (locally), but we're getting off on the right foot," Lewis said.
He believes he's directly saved one life already.
In April, police pulled over a 23-year-old Beaufort man. Officers allegedly found a half-full bottle of Xanax in the vehicle, a prescription that had been filled just two days earlier.
Lewis then administered the drug examination.
Early on, he noticed the suspect's pulse was unusually high, a sign someone on depressants is overdosing. The officer immediately stopped the test and rushed the man to the hospital.
At the hospital, it was determined he had taken 32 of the pills over the previous 24 hours, Lewis said.
"If (Lewis) hadn't taken him to the hospital," Kopenhaver said, "there was a real possibility we would have seen his name in the newspaper -- on the back page."