COP STOP: You’re driving home, happy and peaceful, when alarming lights go on behind you. An officer of the law wants you to pull over.
Your heart thumps. Was it that rolling California stop you just made? Is a tail light out? And how many drinks did you have back at the bar? Two, or was it three? Or four?
And, horrors, is your blood alcohol level at or above the crisis point of .08 percent alcohol? Are you (gasp!) DUI—driving under the influence?
Your brain reminds you that an arrest could cost you around $10,000, even if you don’t go to trial. You should have grabbed a taxi home, but now, sadly, it’s too late. Are you about to become a statistic? In a 17-day period during the recent holidays, 288 people were arrested for suspected DUI countywide.
You know you’re not falling-down, staggering drunk. In fact, you don’t feel drunk at all. But you couldn’t be more nervous when you pull over to the curb and show the officer your driver’s license, registration, and proof of insurance. Meanwhile, he or she is whiffing your breath for that telltale smell of alcohol and maybe waving a penlight to see how your eyeballs react.
Bad luck. The officer starts administering a field sobriety test in which you are expected to stand straight and count to 30, or walk heel-to-toe without tipping over. Worse, the officer, who clearly suspects you are an impaired driver, asks you to take a blood alcohol test by either blowing into a calibrated gizmo or giving a blood sample, using his or her portable kit.
Somewhere you’ve heard that if you refuse these blood alcohol tests, they can’t use the results against you in court. I’ve heard that too, but since I’ve never been stopped for a suspected DUI, I sat down with Lee Carter, senior Santa Barbara County deputy DA, to find out.
Carter at one time handled all DUI cases but now just the most serious ones, like a recent wrong-way double fatality on Highway 101. Besides the dead, two other family members were injured badly. “The family has been devastated,” Carter said. The 20-year-old Orange County driver of the wrong-way car is being held in lieu of $1 million bail, charged with vehicular manslaughter and facing prison time if convicted. He, too, is also reportedly “devastated.”
If you refuse a chemical test, Carter told me, “The law says we can forcibly take blood from you.” But in only about 2 percent of the cases do jail personnel have to hold a suspect down while a sample is drawn, he said.
Another misapprehension is the idea that if you “blow” under .08, you won’t be arrested. Not so, Carter said. Say you’ve had two drinks. Your BAL might register, say, at .04. In practice, you could be arrested if the officer feels that your reaction to the alcohol is making you an unsafe driver. If you’ve been weaving all over the road, driving with no headlights, or going through red lights, it’s likely you won’t be sent on your way.
It could turn out to be what’s known as a “wet reckless,” or reckless driving, a lesser offense.
Let’s say you’ve blown a .08-plus and have been booked at the County Jail. Usually you’re kept overnight to sober up, Carter said. Next, your arrest report will hit Carter’s desk or that of another deputy DA. Filing a charge is not automatic. The test is “whether [guilt] could be proven beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury in our community,” he said. Back when Carter was handling every DUI case, he rejected one or two a day, maybe more, “for a variety of reasons.” Perhaps there was a lack of sufficient evidence “or something about it that couldn’t be proven. That doesn’t mean that the officer was wrong.”
It’s one safeguard for the public. Another comes in the form of a defense attorney. Carter recommends that a defendant consult a lawyer.
“I hand the attorney all my evidence,” Carter said. “They frequently hand me the evidence they have, perhaps evidence I don’t have. We settle cases.” Less than one percent of DUI cases go to trial.
Let’s say you decided to plead guilty and had an attorney appear for you in court. Typically on a first offense, you’ll be put on three years’ probation and be fined around $2,000, Carter said. You’ll also have to attend “first offense” educational classes costing hundreds of dollars, and you’ll lose your driver’s license for four months. You’ll probably be ordered to a Sheriff’s work program in lieu of jail time.
Your lawyer will set you back $2,000 to $2,500 and your insurance will probably go up by $2,000 a year. Grand total of the cost of not spending $10 or $20 on a taxi: Around $10,000. For repeat offenders the penalties get steeper.
“Most people we never see again” after the first offense, Carter told me. “We understand that people make mistakes. These are not bad people. We just want to educate them so they don’t do it again.”