Police as Experts in the Detection of Alcohol and Other Drug Intoxication: A Review of the Scientific Evidence within the Australian Legal Context

By Monds, Lauren A.; Quilter, Julia et al. | University of Queensland Law Journal, December 2019 | Go to article overview

Police as Experts in the Detection of Alcohol and Other Drug Intoxication: A Review of the Scientific Evidence within the Australian Legal Context


Monds, Lauren A., Quilter, Julia, Golde, Celinevan, McNamara, Luke, University of Queensland Law Journal


I INTRODUCTION

Alcohol and Other Drug ('AOD') use is a prominent issue within Australia. High levels of substance use (1) are accompanied by a significant amount of AOD-related crime; a substantial proportion of offences are committed by and committed against people under the influence of one or more substances. (2) The costs to society of AOD-related crimes are high. (3) Police officers deal with intoxicated victims, witnesses and/or suspects on a regular, often daily, basis.

This article reviews the 'expertise' of police officers in assessing the 'intoxication' of people they encounter. Despite the ubiquity of words like 'intoxicated' and 'drunk', the precise meaning of such terms is elusive. In the criminal law context, it is often important to assess not simply whether a person is under the influence of alcohol or another drug (or both), but also the extent of that influence, and the nature of its effects on physical and cognitive functioning. Given that police officers are often called upon to make assessments of whether a person is relevantly intoxicated, in a variety of contexts and for a range of purposes, it is important to investigate the quality and reliability of police assessments.

Part II of the article considers the prevalence of AOD use and the frequency with which police interact with people who are intoxicated, as well as the types of crimes in which AOD use most frequently appears. In Part III, attention turns to how police expertise in intoxication detection is viewed in Australia. Part IV aims to convey just how consequential police assessments of intoxication can be, and, therefore, why the 'expertise' of police officers should be scrutinised. We use three examples, drawn from different part of the criminal justice system: public order, police interviewing, and serious crime trials. Part V considers whether Australian legislation provides sufficient guidance to police officers on what intoxication means and how it should be assessed. Part VI investigates what the relevant scientific research reveals about the ability of police officers to assess intoxication, and Part VII considers the level of training Australian police receive to assess intoxication. Part VIII concludes and identifies future avenues for research.

II PREVALENCE OF AOD USE AND POLICE INTERACTIONS WITH INTOXICATED PEOPLE

The 2013 Australian National Drug Strategy Household Survey demonstrated high levels of substance use. In the previous 12 months, approximately 16 million Australians (80 percent) consumed alcohol, and three million Australians (15 per cent) used illicit drugs, with the number of users increasing from earlier years. (4) In 2016, two of the most frequently used illegal substances were cannabis (10 per cent) and meth/amphetamines (1.4 per cent), and five per cent of Australians had misused pharmaceuticals (such as benzodiazepines and opioids) in the last 12 months. (5) There is a high correlation between many offences and AOD use. For example, in 2016, one in 10 people aged 14 or older had been a victim of an illicit drug-related incident in the previous 12 months. (6) The costs to society of AOD-related crimes are high. Available estimates suggest that the costs attributable to alcohol-related crime in Australia were $15.3 billion in 2010, (7) and the costs attributable to illicit-drug related crime were $3.8 billion. (8)

Interaction with people who are under the influence of AOD is a frequent part of policing. In a study by Evans and colleagues, law enforcement officers from the United States completed a survey about their experiences with intoxicated witnesses and suspects. (9) Police responses indicated that contact with intoxicated witnesses was either common or very common (73 per cent of responses). It was also stated that the crimes most likely to be witnessed while intoxicated were violent in nature. Furthermore, police estimated that approximately 52 per cent of victims of sexual violence and 41 per cent of victims of non-sexual violence were intoxicated at the time of the event. …

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