Under the influence

Checkpoints are often set up throughout the area to ensure the

– even misdemeanors – hurt more than residents may realize
The party is supposed to be the best night of your life that you’ll never remember, but if you climb behind the wheel while under the influence, that night of fun could turn into a nightmare.

A DUI, even a first-time offense, carries large penalties.

Drivers younger than 21 will lose their licenses for a year, and those older than 21 will be without one for four months.

Moreover, offenders face a slew of time and money-draining expenses from up to $12,000 in fines to an average of three years probation, and as much as $1,500 in increased insurance premiums due to the two-point mark that will be placed on their driving records for the next seven years.

“By the time they get done with the court system and the fines and the increase in their insurance, they’re usually into $6,500 in out-of-pocket payments just to clear themselves,” said San Benito County Sheriff-Coroner Curtis Hill. That’s only for being stopped by the police, Hill said, not for damaging property or hurting others.

Yet each year in California, an estimated 203,000 people are arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol, narcotics or prescription drugs, even though they believe themselves to be sober at the time.

The overwhelming majority of these cases are classified as misdemeanors, meaning no accidents, injuries or deaths occurred as a result of the action, but not everyone is so lucky.

“When a person is drunk, and they go over the line, it’s the person they hit who usually gets hurt or killed,” said Hill. “It’s that nurse who’s coming home late after working at the hospital or the janitor who’s going home to his wife and kids at midnight and gets hit by someone who was drunk and blew a stop sign. Or, it’s the friends of the guy who’s drunk and insists he’s OK to drive who still climb in the car. We see those all the time. They’re all things that have happened in our community.”

When a crash happens or someone gets hurt, the count goes up to felony, which carries much more severe penalties, including jail time. In the last year – from June 15, 2004 to June 15, 2005 – San Benito County Sheriff’s deputies have made 10 felony DUI arrests and Gilroy Police Department officers have made eight.

On June 8, 22-year-old Mathew Engwall was sentenced in just such a case. He pleaded no contest to an alcohol-related crash in Hollister that killed his friend and passenger, Adam Baxter, on Jan. 2 and was sentenced to 150 days in jail along with 400 hours of community service, five years probation and nearly $3,000 in fines.

However, most DUIs are misdemeanors, and the San Benito County sheriff’s and Gilroy police departments have made a combined total of 530 arrests for those crimes in the same time period.

That number is almost equivalent to CHP totals for Santa Clara County, where officers made 600 DUI arrests, 12 of them felonies from the same time period. These incidents also resulted in 95 car accidents, three of which were fatal.

“When you see multiple drunk-driving arrests, that person is an alcoholic,” said Hill. “Most people you’ll never see for that again. Still, when someone gets caught – even if it’s the first time – statistically they’ve driven drunk at least 12 times before that arrest.”

Officers cannot pull someone over simply for suspicion of intoxication, but they are free to pull over anyone who makes a traffic violation such as weaving over the center median, failing to stop at a stop sign or violating speed laws, said California Highway Patrol Officer Chris Armstrong, public affairs officer for the Hollister/Gilroy CHP site.

Officers can observe drivers they suspect of drunk driving once a car is pulled over, noting the smell of alcohol or bleary eyes or noticing problems with physical control such as slurred speech or an inability to locate a driver’s license in a clearly organized wallet.

“If we feel like there’s a chance that they are under the influence, we’ll ask them to hand us the keys to the car and, once they’ve done that, step out of the vehicle,” said Armstrong.

Before administering a field sobriety test to possibly impaired drivers, officers will ask suspects a series of questions to determine whether anything else could be causing the intoxicated symptoms they’ve observed.

Diabetes, epilepsy, illness or injury could effect a person’s driving ability, as could lack of sleep or nourishment, and some physical limitations can impair a person’s ability to complete field sobriety tests.

If the officers have gone through the questionnaire and still suspect the person is intoxicated, they conduct a field sobriety test, choosing an average of four tests for a suspect to perform, from having suspects pat their hands in a steady rhythm or walk a straight line to standing on one leg and counting seconds at the same time.

One of the best ways to tell if a person is drunk or abusing drugs is through the use of a test called horizontal gaze nystagmus, said Armstrong.

Basically, when a person is intoxicated, his or her eyes tend to jerk involuntarily, he said, but the condition is relatively rare in the general population.

“It’s a great indicator,” said Armstrong.

At the conclusion of the field sobriety test, officers administer a preliminary alcohol screening test using a device similar to a brethalyzer that estimates blood alcohol levels based on the testing of the breath, but the only number that will actually go into the final DUI report is a chemical test that measures alcohol levels in a suspect’s blood or breath. It’s administered when officers book the driver into jail.

“If you get to the detention center and you refuse the test, that’s an automatic one-year suspension on your driver’s license,” said Armstrong.

And for drivers who think they can get around the system by smoking, chewing gum or using breath mints, think again, said Hill.

“People think they can get away with so much, but there are little giveaways,” Hill said. “When you’re on the beat, you just know. If it’s 2:15am in the middle of winter and we see a car driving along with a window down, we’re going to get ’em. The alcohol raises body temperature and the window is a dead giveaway.”

If you plan on drinking at a wedding, party or social event, take a friend who will agree to act as your designated driver, suggested Sgt. Kurt Svardal of the Gilroy Police Department.

According to the CHP pamphlet “Think Before You Drink,” a designated driver is defined as someone 21 or older who abstains from alcohol and drugs while out with friends. The designated driver should identify him or herself to wait staff as the group’s designated driver and keep an eye on friends.

Parents who throw parties for underage drinkers in the hopes of keeping them from driving or friends who “are only going to have one drink” are not acting as responsible parties, added Hill.

In fact, they could be liable for any injury, accident or death that occurred as a result of their actions.

If you’re the one who’s intoxicated, don’t drive, said Svardal.

“Get a ride, whether it be with a taxi, a friend or whatever, but you’re not capable of handling a car,” said Svardal. “If it’s OK, you might want to sleep there because even if you feel better, you could still be an impaired driver.”

And remember, said Svardal, that all it takes is one bad decision to change a life forever.