By Gerry Goldshine
“Ma’am, have you consumed any alcoholic beverages tonight?”
“Yes, I had some wine with dinner.”
“How many glasses of wine did you have?”
“I believe it was two glasses.”
Two; for some unfathomable reason when asked how many beers, glasses of wine or shots they had consumed prior to my stopping them, nearly every driver who had been drinking answered, “two”. It didn’t seem to matter whether they understood English or not, the answer was most always “dos”, “zwei”, “deux” or some other form of the number two. Both ride-a-longs and trainees always expressed skepticism when I told them of this little curiosity right up until I asked that magic question only to be told, “Why I had just two beers, officer.”
One night, after a DUI subject’s breathalyzer test results showed him having a blood alcohol concentration of .25% – more than three times the legal limit in California – I asked the surprisingly happy and talkative man why he told me that he had consumed only two beers. Though this is hardly a scientific analysis, he told me, “I figured if I said I’d only had one beer, you probably wouldn’t believe me. Three beers seemed too many, so I settled on two.” I had to admit that his response did have a certain amount of inebriated logic to it.
In the cult movie “The Man With Two Brains”, Steve Martin’s character, Dr. Michael Hfuhruhurr, is stopped by a Austrian police officer for speeding. Suspicious that Dr. Hfuhruhurr may have been driving while intoxicated, the officer gives him a series of increasingly impossible Field Sobriety Tests, culminating with his having to juggle three balls, tap dance and sing the Catalina Magdalena Luptenschteiner Volunbeiner song all at the same time – “The Man With Two Brains” Field Sobriety Test Scene. Though many people may perceive actual Field Sobriety Tests – also known as FSTs – to be as complex and arbitrary as those Steve Martin was asked to do, they have actually been designed following research sponsored by the Federal Highway Traffic Safety Administration to measure an individual’s ability to perform divided attention type of tasks. I don’t want to go into too much detail here on the subject of detection and apprehension of impaired drivers; however, it will be helpful to understand why officers do some of the things when checking on a possible impaired driver.
If you think about it, driving a vehicle requires you to divide your attention among a multiplicity of tasks, such as how hard to press on the accelerator, how hard to brake and when, judging your speed, making steering inputs and checking traffic ahead. These are just a few of the moment by moment operational tasks upon which we split our attention, almost without thinking, as we drive down a street. The ingestion of alcoholic beverages reduces a person’s ability to focus on more than one task at a time. What an officer tries to gauge by administering these “tests” is not whether a person can pass every single task but rather, does their overall performance on all of the tests, combined with the observed physical signs of intoxication indicate impairment. An additional factor which may be considered is the driving behavior that attracted the officer’s attention, though sometimes the stop may be for something as innocuous as an inoperative headlight.
I found that observing how a person maneuvered themselves out from behind the wheel of their car to the nearby sidewalk to be a pretty good initial indicator of how impaired their ability to drive was. How I wish I had some of the video tools available now because words alone can’t do complete justice to some of the conduct I witnessed over the years. More than a few times, a driver would open his car door, only to look at me ashen-faced as his exit was preceded by the noisy clatter of empty beer cans cascading out of the vehicle and into the street. Frequently, this was then followed by the driver also noisily spilling out of the car onto his fundament amidst the spent beer cans. Obviously, the fanny plant into the pile of recyclable cans was akin to a “Blue’s Clue” that something was amiss.
Sometimes, just getting to the sidewalk was an exciting adventure itself. There were those who attempted to conceal their unsteady state by keeping at least one hand on their car for balance as they slowly worked their way to the sidewalk. There is nothing quite as amusing as a drunk trying to be nonchalant, especially when they know a police officer is watching them. For many an intoxicated subject, a supporting hand wasn’t enough. In some of those instances, the driver would have to rest their derrière against their car and then slide their way to the curb, leaving a nice, butt high, clean streak in their wake. Once and awhile, I would stop a heavily intoxicated driver who, after nearly falling out of their car, made their way to the sidewalk using a gait I called the “trip, stumble and stagger”. They generally needed assistance to find their way to the sidewalk as well as to keep from lurching out into traffic.
Once we were on the sidewalk, I always made sure that the person did not have any physical infirmities that would explain any observed difficulties in walking or might interfere with their ability to perform some basic balance and coordination tests. Once in awhile I did run into someone who was having a diabetic crisis or who had an artificial limb or joint. One officer tried to stop someone for driving recklessly and following a short pursuit, discovered the man had no legs. There were also those who claimed an assortment of sprains, muscle pulls and the like. In an effort to be fair to them, I would tailor which tests I administered to compensate for whatever infirmity they happened to have or claimed to have. Invariably, someone would tell me, “My doctor says I’m uncoordinated so I can’t do any of your tests.” Of course this claim was generally suspect since I hadn’t yet explained what I wanted them to do. Trying to elicit details as to the condition causing said “uncoordination” usually proved to be an exercise in futility. Still, I had ways to work around even that challenge.
Perhaps more entertaining were those who would defiantly announce, “My lawyer says I don’t have to take any of your field tests. So, I’m not doing them.” Perhaps they thought by not taking any field sobriety tests they couldn’t be arrested. Usually by that point, most officers have observed enough of their physical symptoms of intoxication along with their balance and coordination as they walked from the car and stood on the sidewalk that they could articulate more than enough facts to satisfy probable cause. On the other hand, I had several people look at me, shrug their shoulders and then say, “Ah hell. I know I’ve I had too much to drink. I’m drunk and shouldn’t have been driving. So go ahead, arrest me and save us all some time.” They were always right.
Part 3 will post this week. It’ll be worth the wait, even if it requires an adult audience!
Gerry was born in Providence, Rhode Island but raised in Southern California.
Upon graduating from California State University, Los Angeles, Gerry enlisted in
the Army and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant. After leaving active duty
in 1979, he worked for Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office. From 1980 until his retirement
in 1996, he was a patrol officer, traffic officer, and a trainer at Petaluma Police Department.
Gerry is married, has a daughter and lives in Sonoma County, California.