Last year my life was forever changed. I was arrested for DUI as I was driving home from a beer festival. As a long-time beer blogger and advocate of knowing when to say when, this was devastating. Over the next few weeks, I will be telling my story in hopes that my experience will resonate with my readers and deter them from taking any chances when their ability to drive after having a few beers may be impaired.
Along the perimeter of the crime scene tape that roped off the intersection, a crowd was beginning to gather. Even though it was 10:00 p.m., passers-by and residents of the nearby condo tower were assembling to gawk at the commotion that had summoned so many – at least 20 – police vehicles and shut down Bay Street in both directions. And, as if the gaggle of ordinary citizens was not enough, the media had arrived and had begun setting up cameras for their 11:00 p.m. broadcasts.
“I will be conducting the crash investigation,” the female officer said to me. “And, for now, I would like to move you to my car. You are not under arrest; I am just detaining you while I conduct my investigation.”
With that, for only the second time in my life, I was placed in the rear seat of a police cruiser. While I was not in handcuffs, I was acutely aware of where I was and how the situation seemed to be worsening by the moment. Anyone who has watched one or two episodes of Cops on television knows that “detaining” a suspect in the back seat of a police vehicle is merely a prelude to arresting that suspect. My already low spirits sank even lower.
For what seemed like an eternity, I sat in the back of that police car while outside a flurry of activity had a small army of police officers scurrying about performing various tasks. My mind was churning through all the possible outcomes of my current situation. I still did not feel impaired, my mind did not feel dulled nor did I have any issue moving from my truck across the intersection to the police vehicle.
Finally, after nearly an hour, another officer came to the police car I was detained in, opened the door and asked me to step out. The officer introduced himself as the DUI investigator and explained that the officers I spoke to previously had some concerns that I may be impaired. He said that it was his job to determine if I was impaired and make a decision on my disposition. He also explained that the entirety of our interactions would be recorded both on audio and video.
The DUI officer spent a few moments talking with me, explaining his role and what would happen next. True to most television cop shows, what was expected of me was to perform a series of exercises designed to test my ability to follow directions. What he did not tell me was that several of the exercises used to determine sobriety are what are known as ‘divided attention’ tasks.
A divided attention test – in terms of field sobriety — is defined as any evaluation that contains both physical and mental components. This type of test requires the subject to divide their attention by performing a physical task while simultaneously performing a mental task. The two standardized tests commonly used by law enforcement that fit this description are the walk and turn test and the one-leg-stand test.
Before the testing began, the DUI officer did ask if I would prefer doing the tests in another location away from the prying eyes of the public and the even more intrusive television cameras. I thankfully accepted his offer and we drove for a few minutes to a location along the Northbank River Walk.
To be sure, the sobriety test began the moment I stepped out of the back seat of the first cruiser, but the more familiar tests were about to begin. Each of the tests is designed to help officers determine if a suspect is under the influence of alcohol. I was asked to perform five of them.
The first test I was asked to perform was the horizontal gaze nystagmus (HGN) test. A standardized field sobriety test, the HGN test requires the subject to follow the tip of a pen or other object as the officer moves it from side to side and up and down. The name of this test is derived from horizontal gaze nystagmus which refers to a quick movement or jerking of the eye as it moves side to side. This jerking motion, or nystagmus, is an indication of drug or alcohol impairment caused by the brain’s inability to properly control the eye muscles.
Next, I was asked to perform the walk and turn test, the first of the divided attention tests I was subjected to. Also a standardized test, in this test the subject is asked to stand with feet heel-to-toe and hold that stance for a few moments as the officer provides instructions. After the instructions are given, the subject must take nine steps with their feet heel-to-toe, turn and return to the starting point again heel-to-toe. Officers are looking to see if you can listen while maintaining the starting position and if you can follow the instructions given while maintaining balance. It is important to note, that guidelines state this test is not appropriate or conclusive if the subject is more than 50-pounds overweight.
Following the walk and turn test, the officer requested I perform the finger to nose test. In this divided attention test, the suspect is asked to stand with their hands to their side and eyes closed. The officer instructs the subject to touch their nose with tip of their finger and immediately return the hand to their side. The officer tells the subject which hand to use. The object is to see if the subject can perform as directed. The officer watches for swaying, whether the correct hand is used and whether the subject returns their hand to their side.
I was also asked to perform the recite the alphabet test. In this non-standardized test – meaning that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has not approved the test – the suspect is asked to stand with hands to their side and eyes closed. They are then asked to lean their head back and to recite the alphabet in a non-rhythmic manner. Another divided attention test, the officer is looking to see if the subject can recite the alphabet without singing it while maintaining the requested body position without swaying or losing balance.
Finally, the DUI officer asked me to try the one-leg stand test. One of the most recognizable tests requested during field sobriety evaluations; this is also a standardized and divided attention test. The reason this test is requested so often is that it is very difficult to do. Often, like the walk and turn test, a person who is stone cold sober cannot perform this test within the parameters set forth for passing. In addition, this test is not recommended for overweight persons.
The tests are humiliating and dehumanizing. What did not help was that there was a couple sitting on a nearby bench watching intently. But, through the entire process, I remained cooperative and alert. I asked questions to ensure I understood directions correctly and performed tasks as requested.
As the officer wrote a few notes on his pad, I found a certain optimism. In my mind I had done well on the tests and my cooperative nature surely showed that I had nothing to hide. But, as the officer completed his note-taking and walked towards me my hopefulness quickly changed to hopelessness.
“Mr. Wisdom,” the officer said as he reached for his handcuffs. “Unfortunately today I am placing you under arrest for driving under the influence of alcohol.”
Read part IV of this series here.
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