I don’t usually drink cocktails at 10:15 on a Monday morning and I have absolutely never drunk a vodka soda with lime at 10:15 on a Monday morning that was mixed and served to me by a cop. But there I was, getting drunk with nine other volunteers at the Criminal Justice Training Center in Burien.
“Basically you’re here to lend support education to the new police officer recruits,” said Washington State Patrol Sergeant J.P. McAuliffe, State Coordinator for Field Sobriety Testing. “They’re going to be performing field sobriety tests on you guys today.”
I was invited by State Patrol Corporal Brian Dixon. He feels there are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to how much alcohol you can drink before hitting the .08 legal limit and how many drinks one can drink before driving.
“What is important to understand is that the legal limit doesn’t matter. It’s doesn’t have an effect at all on whether or not you get arrested. It’s whether or not you’re impaired. Your impairment happens way before we get to that legal limit.”
Before we started drinking we took our first breathalyzer test to make sure we were 100% sober. Then, based on our weight and gender, the officers determined how much we would drink over the course of two hours.
“Our goal is not to get you sloppy drunk. That doesn’t do anybody any good,” said Sergeant McAuliffe. “It doesn’t take a trained police officer to find a sloppy drunk. We’re going to dose you at or around the illegal mark of the .08 because that’s where a lot of cops are missing the boat as far as arresting or not arresting people.”
So we sat in a conference room for two hours, chatting, snacking, drinking and playing cards. By the end of two hours I had drunk three cocktails, but I had no idea how many shots were in each. Sometimes the officers prodded me to drink faster so I would be as intoxicated as they wanted me to be.
After lunch, the student police officers took turns giving us field sobriety tests. For the first test, I had to follow a pen the officer moved in front of my face. No matter how sober you seem or how well balanced you stand, this is how an officer knows you’ve been drinking.
“It’s called Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus or HGN,” says Deputy Cory Stanton. “It’s an involuntary jerking of the eye. So as your alcohol level rises, your eyes will progressively start to jerk. It’s the one physiological thing that you can’t change no matter what. So as your BAC goes up that’s how we can tell that you consumed alcohol.”
The next two tests involve putting one foot in front of the other and counting steps and holding up a foot and counting while balancing. Since I do yoga, my balance is pretty good, but my eyes gave me away. Officers determined that I would have been arrested five out of the six tests I took.
“When I first came up to you, I could smell alcohol from your mouth,” said student officer Garrett Ware. “Based off the test that we just did, you did not pass the first one and the Walk and Turn test. So I’d say based off that you’d be arrested for DUI.”
At the end of the day, my blood alcohol content was revealed. I blew a .096 before we started the sobriety tests. But I felt too drunk to drive after my very first drink.
“Most people will tell us that they won’t drive when they get to about an .04 or .05. They’re feeling it,” Corporal Dixon said.
Volunteer Krystal Robinson learned that it doesn’t matter how you feel when you decide to get behind a wheel.
“I feel completely fine and I was arrested five times.”
Corporal Dixon emphasizes that you can be arrested even if you blow under a .08 if you are deemed too impaired to drive. You don’t even get tested until you get to the police station. So if you’re feeling sober, how do you know if you’re too drunk to drive?
“I can’t dance, right? So if I’m feeling or thinking it’s a good idea to start go dancing, then it’s definitely a bad idea, shouldn’t be driving. That’s something I can use as a personal indicator. The point is, when you are starting to make these decisions you need to pay attention to how your own judgement is doing. What your own behavior is. Are you starting to get giggly?”
He says food won’t sober you up, sucking on a penny won’t change the breathalyzer results and keychain breathalyzer tests are not to be trusted.