Honest officer, I swear I only had two beers: The saga of driving under the influence

You have reflected on it in your mind  over and over again.  It is surreal. It is not possible.  Yet here you are on a weekday morning lying on a cot in the Teton County Jail covered with a threadbare wool blanket, staring up at the single light bulb on the ceiling which has been glaring in your face for this eternity of a miserably long night.

You should be home getting ready for work. You should be stepping out of the shower just at this moment, drying off, thinking about that first sip of coffee.  You should be planning the day right now.  You should be doing just about anything other than waiting to be released from the jailhouse, having spent the night as an invited guest at Teton County expense, arrested 11 hours earlier for DUI while on your way home after a few drinks with friends at the end of a long day’s work.

Ashamed.  Humiliated.  How could this have happened?  You have not had so much as a traffic ticket in ten years.  A full-time job, a full-time family, and one big time mess on your hands.

In an average year 325 people are arrested in Teton County for driving under the influence.   Members of this club include individuals from virtually every socioeconomic, ethnic, and religious, group in our little shangri-la.

The Wyoming DUI statute makes it a crime for a person to drive or have actual physical control of a vehicle:

(1) with an alcohol concentration of ten one-hundredths of one percent (0.10%) or more;  or

(2) while under the influence of alcohol and/or a controlled substance  to a degree which renders him/her incapable of safely driving.

The events leading up to an arrest for DUI are predictable;  the script does not vary too much from one arrest to another.

The first part involves drinking, of course.  The second part involves getting behind the wheel and driving after you have been drinking.   The third part involves being stopped by a law enforcement officer (Town cop, County cop, Highway patrol).

The law enforcement officer must have a legitimate reason for stopping a vehicle.   Usually the officer spots some type of erratic or unsafe driving behavior.  Perhaps weaving between lanes, or failing to stop at a stop sign, going through a red light, speeding,  following too closely, driving too slowly.   Or, it may be that the officer notices a mechanical violation such as a headlight or taillight out.

Your vehicle is now stopped on the side of the road.  The officer approaches.  You roll down the window.  The officer smells either a moderate or strong odor of alcohol wafting across his nostrils. He asks you if you have had anything to drink.

This next part is truly amazing.  Whether you spent the entire day in a bar, or only an hour, some supernatural force takes control of your mind at this point and you respond, “I had two beers, officer.”  My guess is that this response appears in 90 out of every 100 police reports in DUI arrests.  When a cop hears this answer his eyes reflexively roll back into his head.  The officer will be less suspicious, and you will appear more credible, if you were to say, “Officer, I know this may be hard to believe, but I just consumed 112 margaritas.  I’m not doing too badly though, am I?”

There are usually other bells and whistles sounding in the officer’s mind at this point.  Slow or deliberate speech, bloodshot or watery eyes, endless fumbling through the wallet in search of a driver’s license.  Something.

The officer requests that you step out of your vehicle so that he can put you through a series of tests, “field sobriety tests” in the vernacular (“FSTs”).

You have the option of refusing to get out of your vehicle, of course.  This response automatically guarantees you an armed escort and a bed in the Teton County Jail.  Most people opt for the FSTs.

The first field sobriety test which the cop usually administers is the “horizontal gaze nystagmus” test, “HGN” for short.  Law enforcement officers swear by this test.  If the cops could give but one FST to a suspect, this is it.

“Nystagmus” is an involuntary jerkiness in the movement of the eye.  Nystagmus simply means a twitching of the eye.  If you hold your head perfectly still, and focus your eyes straight ahead, then move your eyes to the side as far as they will go, at some point as your eyes are moving to the extreme periphery they will begin to jerk rapidly and persistently.   This happens to each of us stone cold sober.  It is an involuntary, unconscious action, like breathing or the beating of your heart.

Many years ago some rocket scientist discovered that alcohol has a noticeable affect on horizontal gaze nystagmus.  The theory is that when we consume a certain amount of alcohol the jerkiness in our eye movement actually begins much sooner as we move our eyes toward our ear.  The experts swear that it can accurately be predicted whether a person is over the legal limit for alcohol consumption by measuring where the jerkiness in eye movement begins, i.e., by measuring the “angle of onset” of the HGN.

I am probably making this more complicated than it needs to be, but folks, let’s be honest – what can you really expect for fifty cents?

So you are now standing behind your vehicle and in front of the patrol car.  The headlights are on, and so is the camera.  Each patrol vehicle is equipped with a camera mounted on the dashboard, each officer is wired for sound, and in the new millennium most DUI arrests in Teton County are videotaped in living stereo.

The officer shows you a flashlight which looks like a pen with an illuminated tip.  He tells you to keep your head perfectly still, eyes forward and focused on the tip of the flashlight, which he is holding about 12 inches from your nose.  He asks you to follow the light with your eyes as he slowly moves the flashlight first toward your right ear, then back to center (in front of your nose), then toward your left ear.  He repeats this procedure a total of three times, each time looking for a different physical response in the movement of your eyes.

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I have some bad news to report: the officer suspects you’ve had too much to drink, and he is quite certain that this HGN mumbo jumbo supports his suspicion.

I have even more bad news: you need to wait another two weeks to find out how it all ends.   See you next time.

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