Trucking companies don't always know if a driver is arrested for drugs, and they keep driving

Shortfalls in rules meant to keep highways safe

GREEN TOWNSHIP, Ohio -- Scott Kinmon was arrested in Cincinnati's West End neighborhood on July 24. He climbed down from the cab of a semitrailer and told a police officer he'd used heroin.

Ten days later, Kentucky renewed his commercial driver's license.

Two weeks after that, he jackknifed on Interstate 74 near North Bend Road. Deputies said he was high on heroin again.

The WCPO I-Team spent weeks digging into why state officials and the trucking company let Kinmon keep driving after his first drug-related arrest.

His case, and that of another truck driver police also arrested in western Hamilton County last summer, expose loopholes and shortfalls in federal rules meant to keep other drivers safe.

People at every level of government, along with a trucking industry insider, say what the I-Team uncovered is proof those rules must change.

 

'It's a different time now'

Tracy Grome was going home from work on a Friday afternoon, ready to spend the weekend boating at Brookville Lake with her daughter and husband.

As she drove west on I-74, the traffic around her started to slow. Kinmon's semitrailer was all over the road, she said. Other rush-hour drivers dodged out of the way.

Traffic quickly came to a stop. The semi jackknifed across all three lanes.

Then it started to roll back toward her.

Grome said she put her car in reverse, but she could only move about 10 feet.

"I thought he was going to crush me," she said. "By the grace of God, he got stopped by the guardrail."

Kinmon's truck jackknifed across all lanes of Interstate 74, finally coming to rest against a guardrail. (Photo provided by Hamilton County Sheriff's Office)

Two men, a father and son, busted the semi's window and got Kinmon out. Grome thought he had a heart attack. But she said it quickly became clear he'd overdosed: His lips were blue, his skin was gray, and he was frothing at the mouth. Grome thought he was dead.

She prayed.

"I thought, 'God please, let this man's family know he's not dying alone,'" Grome said.

Emergency workers used two doses of naloxone to revive him. He took a deep breath after the first dose, Grome said. By the second dose, he sat up and was ready to fight.

"He started swinging, was a little combative. And then he kind of realized what was going on," she said.

The I-Team obtained a police report showing he provided investigators with a written statement saying, "All I remember ... is waking up on the ground."

Once the initial shock wore off, Grome was livid.

"I could've died from a heroin overdose, and I've never done drugs in my life," Tracy Grome said.

A trucker rear-ended her and her family two years ago, she said; they ended up in a ravine. That driver fell asleep -- she doesn't know if he was on drugs. But having Kinmon's semi roll back toward her was like a flashback.

She was even angrier when she found out about Kinmon's arrest just three weeks before.

Not charged with OVI on a technicality

It was around 8 p.m. July 24 when Cincinnati firefighters were called to Bank Street for a man slumped over in a semi. According to body camera video from that night, firefighters banged on the truck but couldn't get the man to respond. They thought the man might be in the sleeper cab, so they called police for help.

Once an officer arrived, Kinmon stepped out of the truck. The officer immediately suspected he was high:

"The fire department's sitting here for the last 20 minutes banging on the door, and I just happen to bang on the door and you wake up?," the officer said. "I don't buy that story. We're here to help you and if you want to continue giving us bull$#!+, I'll go ahead and put you in the back of my car."

Minutes later, Kinmon admitted he used heroin; the officer was worried about being poked with a needle, but Kinmon said he snorted the drug.

"You're lucky you weren't behind the wheel with the keys in the ignition," the officer said, "or I'd charge you with an OVI."

Warning: The video below contains profanity.

 

Instead, Kinmon was charged wth disorderly conduct while intoxicated. He bailed out of jail and returned to work.

He lived in Crittenden and drove for J&S Express Transport Inc. in Florence, both in Kentucky. The commonwealth and his company didn't know about his disorderly conduct charge in Ohio.

"How many truck drivers are out there on the road that we have no idea that are practicing in this type of behavior?" Grome said.

"There's time for change. Clearly. It's a different time now."

 

According to the most recent data available from Bureau of Transportation Statistics, Ohio and Indiana ranked in the top 10 states for fatal crashes involving a large truck in 2015. Ohio had 156 fatal large truck crashes, or 15.2 percent of all fatal crashes in the state. Indiana had 105 such crashes, or 13.9 percent.

Both are higher than the national average, 11.2 percent.

And when it's broken down by fatal large truck crashes per total miles traveled, Kentucky ranked 10th.

"I could've died from a heroin overdose, and I've never done drugs in my life," Grome said.

 

'That could have been catastrophic'

Kristopher Phoenix was slumped to the floorboard when police found him July 12, Cleves Police Chief Richard Jones said. He and another officer were the first to arrive.

Phoenix was inside a tanker truck, parked but still running, at a BP gas station on U.S. Highway 50. Workers told police Phoenix had been there for about 20 minutes.

Jones' first concern was making sure the truck wasn't in gear. He feared the tanker truck might roll into the gas pumps and cause a massive explosion.

"That could have been catastrophic for a small town like ours," Jones said.

He jumped into the truck's cab, startling Phoenix awake. Jones said Phoenix had blood coming from his nose, and he told officers he'd used heroin.

Kristopher Phoenix appears at an arraignment hearing in a Hamilton County courtroom.

"He was whistling while he was talking, and it wasn't coming out of his mouth. It was coming out of his nose. He was trying to explain to us that that center part that divides your nose had a hole in it from the repeated use of drugs," Jones said.

According to a police report obtained by the I-Team, Phoenix told police he used up to a gram of heroin every day for three years. His company, RelaDyne, said he was randomly selected for a drug test last year -- and passed.

Police charged Phoenix with heroin possession, aggravated drug possession, and having physical control of a vehicle while under the influence. RelaDyne fired him the same day.

Are drug tests tough enough?

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, regulates drug testing in the commercial trucking industry.

Federal regulations used to require random drug tests on 50 percent of drivers. Tom Balzer, president and CEO of the Ohio Trucking Association, said the safety record was so strong that the U.S. Department of Transportation lowered it to 25 percent. That's the same percentage of commercial airline pilots who have to undergo a random drug test for the Federal Aviation Administration each year.

Less than half of 1 percent of drug and alcohol screens come back positive, Balzer said.

There are four major ways a trucker can be screened:

  • Truckers must pass a drug test before they're hired.
  • Truckers are subject to random drug screenings each year.
  • Truckers have to take a drug test if they're involved in some types of crashes.
  • Employers can make truckers take a drug test if they're suspected of using drugs.

Drivers must go to a testing site as quickly as possible after they're told they'll be tested. There, they urinate into a cup, which is then tested for marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines, PCP and opiates.

The DOT threshold for opiates is 2,000 ng/mL. Any number below that is reported as a negative drug test result. Dr. Mina "Mike" Kalfas, an addiction specialist at Christ Hospital, previously told the I-Team the threshold used to be 500 ng/mL, but that level resulted in too many false negatives.

For comparison, Northern Kentucky's St. Elizabeth health system uses a threshold of 300 ng/mL -- nearly seven times lower -- to screen pregnant mothers.

A violation doesn't necessarily mean drivers loses their livelihood: They can return to driving after going through a substance abuse evaluation, education and treatment. They also have to take a screening before returning to work and undergo follow-up testing for as long as five years.

"Every one of our employers are willing to provide assistance for these drivers for drug and alcohol abuse counseling, or whatever necessary that they have to have," Balzer said. "We're more than willing to do that. We just need to know that information."

Phoenix's company, RelaDyne, couldn't find his job application -- which should have contained a pre-employment drug screen -- because he worked for a different company before RelaDyne bought it. Ashley Rickman, a RelaDyne spokeswoman, said the missing application came to light after Phoenix's arrest led to a state audit.

Officers lead Kristopher Phoenix out of the Cleves Police Department after his arrest July 12, 2017.

Although the company said Phoenix passed a drug test last year, Jones isn't sure how that's possible. According to federal guidance, heroin typically stays in a person's system for about two days.

And given Phoenix's condition when police arrested him -- the bleeding nose, the whistling sound when he spoke -- Jones wonders how no RelaDyne supervisor suspected he was using drugs.

"That's ridiculous to me that there's nothing in check," he said. "Even if they did one every couple of months, the amount of drugs in some of these people's systems would stick around."

Rickman told the I-Team the company would have screened Phoenix again "if we had observed any unusual behavior or outward signs of drug abuse." The company randomly tested more drivers than required under federal law, she said: RelaDyne tested nearly 33 percent of its drivers in 2016, above the federal requirement of 25 percent.

But the "random" nature of testing also means a driver could go years without ever being checked, Kentucky State Police Sgt. Jason Morris said.

Inconsistent communication

While a federal agency sets rules for the trucking industry, states are responsible for enforcing those rules.

Each state has its own governmental agency responsible for checking on compliance.

In Kentucky, it's KSP's Division of Commercial Vehicle Enforcement.

In Ohio, it's the Public Utilities Commission, which audited RelaDyne after Phoenix's arrest. No one from the agency would talk with the I-Team.

There's no requirement states tell each other -- or a trucker's company -- about drug and alcohol arrests.

Sheila Cook, compliance manager for J&S Express Transport, told the I-Team she didn't know about Kinmon's arrest for disorderly conduct while intoxicated: When police impounded the truck, she said Kinmon claimed he was only arrested on a misdemeanor theft warrant.

 
Kentucky State Police Sgt. Jason Morris explains what enforcement officers look for during roadside inspections. It ranges from the tractor and trailer to the drivers themselves. In Ohio, the Ohio State Highway Patrol performs roadside inspectiosn for the Public Utilities Commission.

And Cook said she found out about his arrest on I-74 from watching the news.

No one from a government agency contacted her until the federal Department of Transportation showed up two weeks later.

Drivers are required to tell their employer about an arrest, Morris said, "but we all know that doesn't happen in most instances." And state motor vehicle departments report cases to each other "a lot of times," but not always.

"If the states do not communicate with each other, then you have that instance where the driver may never have anything come back on his driver's license with a moving violation, much less operating under the influence," he said.

Grome thinks Kinmon's supervisors should have known, that maybe they turned a blind eye.

"When you look at his appearance, I would find it hard to believe that that trucking company didn't have some suspicions that he may have been on drugs," she said.

Industry rep defends safety record

Balzer puts some of the responsibility on the drivers. He called Kinmon's and Phoenix's cases "an abnormality."

"It's something that does not happen every day," Balzer said. "It is very interesting that it happened that same substance in the same geographic area."

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration does not track driver arrests. Since 2013, federal data show 8,000 drug violations nationwide; that could include failed drug tests or refusals to be tested, as well as arrests.

Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky counted for 850 -- or 10 percent of those.

In 1975, there were 5.51 fatalities involving a large truck for every 100 million miles traveled; by 2015, that dropped to 1.45 fatalities.

What needs to change, and where?

Balzer's organization supports a Commercial Driver's License Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse. It's a central portal where employers can find out if a driver violated federal drug and alcohol regulations.

In fact, they'll be required to check on each of their employees each year, one step Balzer said would help improve safety.

Congress ordered the Department of Transportation to create the clearinghouse in 2012; it took four years to get established.

"It's no different than an 80,000-pound time bomb, because that's all it is," Sgt. Jason Morris said.

The trucking industry also sees a need for better communication, Balzer said: Companies want to know if a driver's been charged with a drug or alcohol violation. As Kinmon's case showed, there can be a lag time between when a driver is arrested and when a trucking company finds out.

Balzer wants that notification to be almost instantaneous.

The same applies to drivers who've been given a prescription medication that might make it unsafe to operate a large truck. The federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which protects patient privacy, is a hurdle.

"There is nothing that reports back to the trucking company that, hey, this driver has been put on this particular prescription medicine, you many need to restrict duty," he said. "We want to know that."

U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, thinks there should be a rule requiring police to notify a company if one of its drivers is arrested on drug or alcohol charges. But he put the burden back on states.

"I don't know if it's state government or city government or county government that would do that. I assume it's state government. But that's something the legislature and the Ohio Department of Transportation ought to look seriously at," Brown said.

U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, made the heroin epidemic a central issue in his re-election campaign last year. He declined to be interviewed or provide a comment for this story.

Jones said most of the OVI cases his officers see happen before 1 p.m. and involve drugs, not alcohol. He wants more frequent drug screenings for truckers. He'd also like traffic laws to be modernized to keep up with drugged driving among all motorists -- a problem that's overtaken drunken driving as one of the leading perils on the road.

A recent report released by the Governors Highway Safety Association, based on 2015 data, found that illegal drugs were present in more than 40 percent of fatally injured drivers for whom test results were available.

"I think there should be something brought up with the state that if you get caught up in a drugged driving situation, if the law enforcement can prove it through blood, urine or your self-admission that is a narcotic, I think your charge for that should be different than a regular DUI," Jones said.

Truck drivers have long used pills, cocaine, methamphetamine and other "uppers" to help them run long hours, Morris said. The biggest change is the opioid epidemic, which hit truckers, too. Without better communication between law enforcement, regulators and trucking companies, he said the combination could lead to disaster.

"It's no different than an 80,000-pound time bomb, because that's all it is," he said. "You're just counting down the seconds for something to occur."

  • Phoenix pleaded guilty Oct. 18 to a lesser felony drug possession charge, but the judge didn't accept it immediately. If he completes a three-year commitment to drug court, a judge will dismiss the case and seal his record. If he doesn't, he could face jail time. His drugged driving charge, which is a misdemeanor, is still pending with another court; its outcome may depend on whether Phoenix completes treatment. Defense attorney Merlyn Shiverdecker said both Phoenix's regular and commercial driver's licenses are now suspended. He's not sure for how long.
  • Kinmon pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct while intoxicated Sept. 11, and to operating a vehicle under the influence and reasonable control Sept. 26. He was fined $100 each for the disorderly conduct and reasonable control charges and ordered to remain jailed until February on the OVI charge. A judge barred him from driving any kind of vehicle for three years.
  • Grome said she wants an apology: "I'm married to my best friend. I have a beautiful home. I have three successful children, and I have worked my ass off. I would want him to know how hard I prayed for him, for his family. Would he have prayed for me if he had killed me? Would he have thought of me and been considerate of me?"
Hillary Lake

Hillary Lake is an investigative reporter on the WCPO I-Team. This story is part of WCPO's focus on how the opioid epidemic has sometimes unexpected consequences, as well as possible solutions. You can contact Hillary on Twitter, Facebook or by email.