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Drunk driving arrest process costly
Every week I read police reports from the Snoqualmie Police Department. Many of those are traffic stops and many of those traffic stops are for drunk driving. These reports make for a weird mix of funny and tragic reading, and I have wondered what the process of being pulled over and charged for drunk driving would involve.
Snoqualmie Police Officer Jason Weiss offered to educate me. Weiss is a nine-year veteran who has made many stops in Snoqualmie and in other Eastside cities as part of the Eastside Drunk Driving Task Force. While the task force will target certain areas at certain times (bar area in Kirkland on weekend nights) Snoqualmie officers are always on the lookout for drunk drivers. The day I talked with Weiss, he had made a driving under the influence (DUI) stop earlier that morning at 6:15 a.m.
Weiss said an officer on patrol will look for tell-tale signs that indicate a driver has been drinking. Swerving, erratic speeds and keeping high-beams on with oncoming traffic will usually warrant a stop. Many stops have come after witnessing a car driving down the wrong side of Snoqualmie Parkway, a road with a wide median.
When the officer reaches the window of your car and asks for the needed license, registration and insurance information, they will start looking for signs of drinking like watery eyes and blurred speech. Some drivers have trouble finding their wallet, even though it is often in their back pocket. If the officer suspects you have been drinking, they will ask you if you have. If you say yes, the officer will ask how much. Weiss said he gets the same response from everybody.
"They always say 'A couple,'" Weiss said. "Whether they have had two or a case of 24, that is the answer I always get."
Another line Weiss said he gets is the "pillar of the community" defense. When caught driving drunk, people will start to list off all of the things they have done for the community and that a police officer's time would be better served chasing down 'real' criminals. Weiss said that line won't work. Chief Jim Schaffer has made drunk driving a top priority for enforcement and no driver can expect exclusive treatment.
"That may have happened 10 years ago, but not anymore," Weiss said.
Next the officer will ask you to step out and submit to some voluntary sobriety tests. While there are some exceptions for older people, Weiss will ask for a few standard tests that involve balancing on one leg and following a finger. If you can't perform the tasks well, the officer will ask you to take an on-site blood alcohol count (BAC) breath test. You can refuse, but that doesn't bode well and can result in the state revoking a drivers' license on top of whatever penalty may come from drunk driving. Sooner or later, you will have to submit to a breath test anyway. This first breath test will usually confirm any suspicions the officer may have after the voluntary sobriety tests. If the results of the sobriety and breath test indicate a probable cause for drunk driving, the officer will cuff and arrest you for investigation of DUI.
Right here is where the first in a long line of expenses come. Since the driver is usually either alone or with other drunks, their car will be towed. Getting the car back will cost about $150, not including storage fees. Tow companies are not willing to get your car out of their lot at 2 a.m. on Sunday morning, so expect to pay some storage fees unless you are arrested during business hours.
After being brought to the station, drunk drivers are led to the basement where holding cells and the BAC machine is located. Snoqualmie has the only BAC machine in the Valley so most local drunk drivers will make a stop in this small, concrete room.
Now, I have had too many drinks before and the thought alone of answering questions from a serious police officer in that room is a deterrent to drunk driving. The room is dim, uncomfortable and claustrophobic. I was annoyed being there, stone cold sober at 11 a.m., so I can't imagine explaining the merits of my driving while I was drunk to a skeptical police officer. The room has the feeling of the coach office's off a high-school locker room, another place where I never liked answering questions.
When you are brought in, you will sit at a table and talk to the officer so they can fill out paperwork while the BAC machine warms up. There are some handcuffs on the table that were attached after a drunk got belligerent and tried to throw the machine at an officer. There is no way out of the room without a key and if you are really uncooperative, there is a holding cell with nothing in it but a drain.
Suspects are read their rights and go through a litany of questions that vary from specific facts to opinions. The officer writes down exactly what you say, so if they ask when was the last time you drank and you tell them where to go and how to get there, they will put down your response. Remember, this is going on the record.
Before all of this you are free to talk to a lawyer and there is a private room with a phone for that purpose. You can waive your right to a lawyer, ask for your own, or get one courtesy of the city. Enter another expense to drunk driving. Lawyers are always expensive and Weiss said some will ask for as much as $1,500 up front just to start talking to you about a DUI charge. If you want an attorney appointed to you, you have to qualify for it so don't count on a free lawyer. All lawyer bills are sent to Snoqualmie, so if you are a city resident, you will end up paying one way or the other. If you waive your right to a lawyer, you will eventually have to get one if you go to trial.
Once the paper work is finished up, you are ready to take the BAC test. The machine looks like an electronic typewriter with no carriage, but with a very large straw. The driver blows into the tube twice for 10 seconds. Drivers have thought of many different ways to try and fool the machine and the machine has evolved with each challenge to be fool proof. Don't try to spit in the tube, the machine will turn off. Don't try not blowing, the machine can tell. The officer also clears out your mouth of anything, including tongue piercings, to make sure no residual alcohol messes up the reading.
After the test, a receipt-like sheet comes out with your "score." The state BAC limit is .08. If you are a truck driver, it's .04. If you are under 21, it's .02. If your score is too high, your are legally DUI.
Now that it's official, it gets even more painful. Snoqualmie mandates that all drunk drivers spend one night in jail. Getting booked into the jail in Issaquah is a whole other process I couldn't experience, but one Weiss insisted was unpleasant.
Once you are out of jail, you get a temporary driver's license for 60 days until your hearing. If convicted, your licensee is suspended for at least 90 days; longer if your BAC score was .15 or more. Then the costs really start to add up. If you go to court, there are all kinds of fines and fees you can pay, running up to $8,000. After a drivers' license has been suspended, the state will charge $150 for a new one.
It all sounds like an experience one would not want to repeat, but Weiss estimates half of all the DUI arrests he has made have been repeat offenders. The penalty and fines get worse with each subsequent offense. Jail time minimums of 30 days can be stretched out to a year, a sentence Weiss said judges are not afraid to give. Better have a bike handy because your license can be suspended for up to four years. Electronic home-monitoring devices and ignition interlock machines may be required, all at your expense. And that is not even counting what the DUI will do to your insurance rates, if they keep you as a customer. If you hurt someone else while driving drunk, there is no limit to civil-suit costs.
Remember this is the best case scenario. For a real sense of what happens as a result of driving drunk, get on eastbound Interstate 90 from North Bend's Exit 31 and see the flowers left for Erin Klotz. In 2001 Klotz, a 20-year-old Central Washington Un