I submitted this letter to both the Asheville Citizen-Times and Mountain Xpress newspapers. I have received no replies or indication that they intend to publish it or even investigate the matter. I understand that at approximately 2700 words it is too long for any “Letters” section, but I believe it needs to be published so what better forum than ChillGrill.biz…
Driving while under the influence of alcohol is a very dangerous activity. I know this because I’ve seen the videos and statistics produced to dissuade young drivers from engaging in such reckless behavior, I count among my friends those who have suffered the trauma of horrific accidents, and I have personally experienced an unforgettable ten seconds of terror: I was run over by a presumably (it was a hit-and-run) drunk driver in a pick-up truck going approximately sixty miles an hour while riding my motorbike early on the morning of January 29, 2011.
My crash occurred in Dallas, where I was born and raised. I remember when I was in high school seeing a letter my parents received from the head of school, co-authored by the chief of the Dallas Police Department, labeling underage drinking in north Texas “an epidemic” and echoing the ubiquitous warnings of the dangers of driving while under the influence. You can faithfully count me among the proponents of finding a way to get this problem under control.
While thus far I have submitted nothing controversial, I am about to say something that I know many people will not like or agree with. I was convicted on May 14 of driving while impaired in Buncombe County, tests revealed my blood alcohol content was at the legal limit of 0.08, and I don’t think I did anything wrong (in a moral sense – obviously I was in violation of the law). My only regrets stem from the consequences that I have had to and will continue to endure, and I do not apologize to the community for putting others at risk.
That’s the problem with ameliorating this societal issue: it is an extremely slippery slope. If you drink at all, you probably have had a couple of drinks at dinner and driven home. Depending on your weight, gender, how often you drink, and other factors, you may have been either completely unaffected or guilty of driving while impaired. And although setting an arbitrary blood alcohol content as the point at which drivers should be arrested may accurately apply the appropriate consequences to a wide swath of the population, it also puts some people in the “guilty” category who are not at an increased risk of hurting others.
I will leave names out of this, despite my temptation to do otherwise, in order to demonstrate that this is not intended as a petty attempt at revenge. I am writing this letter because in my limited exposure to Asheville, I see a populace that is politically active and willing to stand up for itself. The circumstances of my case, which I initially presumed to be anomalous, appear to be shockingly routine in light of my discussion with others while going through the process of handling my case.
While in town visiting and dog sitting for my parents for a few days, I had consumed a couple of drinks on a Friday night when I drove to the Shell station (attached to the 51 Grill on Merrimon Avenue) to get a snack before retiring for the night. It was a simple errand, and I had not been out partying or anything of the sort. However, apparently I was at an intersection that feeds in and out of downtown where many drivers my age may often be doing just that. Given that this gas station was very well-lit and I was not in the habit of turning headlights on at night because my vehicle back in Dallas performed this task automatically, I pulled out of the gas station without my headlights on. A law enforcement cruiser lit me up almost immediately.
All of the field sobriety tests administered to me by the officers were fatally flawed. I told the lead officer I had contact lenses in which easily irritate my eyes, yet she had me perform the horizontal gaze nystagmus eye test without providing me a way to remove them. At the “sixteen-one thousand” point of a test in which one must stand on one foot for thirty seconds while counting out loud, which would be difficult for many people regardless of whether or not they had been drinking, the officer asked me to adjust my arms and thus I put my other foot down. I failed this test because “I failed to follow instructions.” Not to mention the reality that many people are understandably uncomfortable while being interrogated by multiple police officers in pitch black darkness, it was forty degrees outside, and I was performing the tests on an uphill stretch of concrete which was wet from the recent rain. For such a short drive, I was wearing my father’s slippers that didn’t even cover the heels of my feet.
The lead officer then asked me if I would take a breath test. Given the fact that I was in a strange city in which I knew nobody and had an urgent responsibility to take care of (which I will detail shortly), at this point I became nervous, because I realized for the first time that they were actually considering the possibility of arresting me. I told the officer politely that, even though I know I am not impaired, I have always been told that lawyers recommend refusing the test because the machines are imperfect. She could not have been more friendly and convincing as she told me that in North Carolina refusal of the test constitutes an automatic six-month license suspension, but “Honestly, I’d advise you to just take it since you seem like you’ll do fine.” Despite the fact that I don’t live here and would be largely unaffected by a license suspension in North Carolina, I agreed that there was really no reason not to take the test since it seemed obvious I would pass. After breathing into the machine, she asked me to turn around and she put me in handcuffs. The officers didn’t allow me to retrieve the keys in the ignition and my wallet from the truck as they called a tow service and we drove away.
When I mentioned I had an urgent responsibility to take care of, I was referring to my parents’ ailing dog. They had asked me if I could come housesit while they had to be out of town, because the dog had recently contracted diabetes, lost half its body weight, and needed medicine at regular intervals. I calmly but purposefully explained this to the officer driving me to the police station and asked if they could stop by my parents’ house on the way so I could at least give the dog its scheduled insulin injection. I was refused even though it was less than five minutes away.
As we walk into the station they are being quite civil and explain that they need me to take a “real breathalyzer,” because the initial one can’t provide reliable measures but can only advise them to take me in. I once again suggest that maybe I shouldn’t take it, and she responds, “Look, you’re being very cooperative. I’ll talk to the magistrate and you’ll probably be out of here in no more than an hour and a half.” Still nervous, mainly because the dog’s fate is in my hands, I blow into the machine as heartily as I can in an emotional attempt to demonstrate my control of all bodily functions. This registers exactly a 0.08 (the legal limit), and I express surprise that I’m that close to being over the limit combined with relief that I can finally start getting out of there and back to the dog.
At that moment, any façade of civility was suddenly sucked out of the room and an environment of hostility swooped in in its stead. I have never encountered such rudeness in my life. They scoff at me and say that I am being charged with driving while impaired. I ask if we can redo the tests and am refused. I am never offered a blood test. As I try to ask what can be done about the dog, they laugh at me, and this continues as a form of entertainment for the officers and guards for the duration of my processing. It’s clear at this point that they were not being forthright with me and simply tricking me into taking the breath test. I give up fighting for myself and ask if an officer can at least accompany me to the house, which is nearby, to give the dog its medicine and then do with me whatever is deemed necessary. This is apparently hilarious. When I get a chance to speak with the magistrate and once again explain the situation calmly, she tells me I can use the phone in just a minute once the guard tells me I can. He never does. When I try to ask her if she’ll remind him to let me, the other male magistrate jumps out of his seat and yells and curses at me to sit down. Finally, after much more than a minute, I ask the guard if I can use the phone, and he says, “Yeah, go ahead obviously” even though it was far from obvious. None of the bail bondsmen listed in the phonebook would service any bail less than $500 (mine had been set at $300), and as mentioned previously the officers didn’t allow me to retrieve anything from the car such as my wallet or keys.
The arresting female officer has completely abandoned her friendly posture now that I’ve taken the test and when I ask a simple question that has not been answered at all, she cuts me off and says “Just stop talking, you’re giving me a headache. I’ve already explained that twice.” Much later, as I’ve reached my father on the phone in the middle of the night in an attempt to alert him about not being able to give the dog his medicine, a guard starts yelling at me that I need to follow him. When I try to explain that this is life or death for the dog (and he has overheard me explain this the whole time to various people), he gets right in my face and snarls, “Fuck your dog.” Shortly thereafter I try to plead with another guard who simply retorts “just shut the fuck up about your fucking dog” before leading me into a jail cell.
I was not able to attend my scheduled trial in February 2011 for the same reason I was able to come out to Asheville to housesit for the dog in the first place: I had quit my job in Dallas and agreed to teach abroad in China for one year. After returning to the U.S., I promptly contacted an attorney, turned myself in to the jail (a warrant had been issued for me due to my failure to appear in court), and awaited my new court date on May 14, 2012. In the interim, my attorney contacted the arresting officer in an attempt to review her notes, which apparently has long been common practice in Buncombe County, so that we could review our options in advance of the trial. The officer returned my attorney’s voicemail and said that her sergeant instructed her not to release the notes of this case in advance of the trial day…
As the notes were handed over in court, my attorney and I were surprised to read that the officers at the scene felt I displayed subjective qualities of impairment such as “slurred speech.” However, the real shocker was the allegation that the officer asked for my state registration card and I proceeded to hand over “the same insurance card four times [in a row] even though officer [number two] saw the registration card on the top of his paperwork.” This is difficult to even respond to, because what actually happened was I explained to the officers as I handed him the insurance card (one time) that the truck belongs to my parents and I don’t know where they keep everything, but I know they have made sure I am on all of the necessary paperwork.
Since there is no video of this exchange, just close your eyes and try to picture someone handing over the same card four times in a row. That person would have to be quite intoxicated or mentally handicapped. It’s not even a reasonable exaggeration for a large male with experience drinking who registers on the legal limit.
My attorney tried to calm my outrage while providing me sound legal advice. He informed me that in Buncombe County, as long as the officers’ notes show reasonable cause for them to administer a breathalyzer test, then the judge will consider the test admissible. And if the test shows a 0.08 or higher in Buncombe County, then a conviction is automatic. If that reasonable cause was going to come down to the officers’ word vs. mine, he said, then it simply wasn’t worth the extra money in attorney’s fees and court costs as well as the additional punishment to be meted out as a result of pleading not guilty and going through with a full trial. Without much in the way of financial resources, I made the difficult choice to plead guilty.
What we have lost touch with in this country is the ability to make judgment calls. I learned during my alcohol and drug education traffic school, which I recently completed as part of my punishment, that depending on a person’s tolerance a BAC higher than 0.08 may be needed before any impairment occurs. Yet the consequences I will face as a result of this unfortunate evening are the same as someone who may have been swerving or falling asleep at the wheel or worse, and they will continue unabated in the form of having to respond to questions about my criminal history on job applications, raised insurance rates, etc. My license has now been suspended in North Carolina for one year, and if I am pulled over at any time in the next three years with a BAC of 0.04 or higher, I will face consequences of increased severity. I guess being convicted triggers a physiological change that causes one to become impaired twice as easily.
In my eyes, the consequences I put others at risk for that night are no different than those posed by me any time I drive a car. For what it’s worth, and I recognize that I every time I get behind the wheel I must continue to be vigilant as no one ever expects an accident to occur, my criminal/traffic record prior to this incident was completely clean except for a few speeding tickets, and the only car accident I have ever been in occurred when I was 17 (I rear-ended someone after my brakes skidded while it was raining).
This is certainly not simply an Asheville problem, but I believe the Asheville populace may be one of the most ready to hear the message. As I look back over this incident I see a young male who looks like he could be in college driving away from an area where many young people drink and drive. I see officers ready to pounce as soon as I pull out of the gas station without headlights on. I see manipulation to get “proof” of impairment. Looking at this from an economic perspective, more police officers are needed to conduct all of the arrests, people get paid to conduct alcohol assessments and teach alcohol classes, and yet more people are needed to oversee those serving jail time and performing community service. Some may gain, but others definitely lose.
Although I am acutely aware of the dangers posed by drinking and driving, and I hope we can foster a society in which people understand more clearly the risks inherent in this behavior and choose not to engage in it, “To protect and serve” no longer seems to be the overarching goal.
P.S. I have the quotes in this letter because I wrote down a multiple-page account of every minute detail that I could muster as soon as I was released the following morning. For those who are interested, the dog survived but went completely blind.