I thought I’d document my experience with the DUI arrest and trial for the sake of those that read this blog. Maybe you’ll find some comfort in this, feeling you’re not alone and you can identify with some or all of this.
That fateful day followed by a horrible night. It was the worst experience in my life so far and I hope it’s the worst I ever have.
That day, a Friday, started badly. I had been suffering from migraines and heartburn for about two weeks by that time. I’d slept little the previous weeks thanks to everything going on at the time. We’d just sunk $16k more in debt selling my house, we’d just had most of the downstairs of our new house gutted because of a sewage back-up in the house, I’d just learned the month before that my lay-off was imminent and I wasn’t finding any open positions in my area. Things were looking pretty bleak. I went to work that day at one of our satellite offices. My two managers were there to watch over my shoulder while I completed a project whose deadline was close-of-business that day. I couldn’t really get anything down my throat except Excedrin, some Tums (neither remedy was helping), yogurt, and some crackers and trail mix. My computer kept freezing. My software kept freezing and shutting down. And around 1pm, my lay-off papers came. I finished the project. Everyone left and I was alone with my thoughts and tears.
I figured I should cheer myself up and shopping sometimes helps. So I drove to the nearby town center and parked in the garage. I shopped for about 2 hours or so. It didn’t cheer me up much- I kept crying in the dressing rooms. I didn’t want to go home like that. My migraine and heartburn had gone back to ‘normal’ levels (‘normal’ to me might be painful to others). So, I dropped off my purchases at the car and walked back out of the garage to one of my favorite restaurants/wine bars.
I’m a big wine enthusiast. A friend of mine had gotten me into it years before and I’d been keeping a journal for about 7 years. I liked to try different wines from all regions. I liked the way they enhanced the flavor of food and the general social nature of sharing a bottle with someone. I ordered a glass of white from Spain, a wine I’d never tried, and started to look through both the wine and food menus. I felt a little more relaxed sitting there at the bar among ‘normal’ people who weren’t dwelling over problems like I had been. I spoke with the bartender and found out that the new varietal of one of my favorite wines had come in. I should note that this place sells most of their best wines by the bottle, not the glass, but in our state, you can recork your bottle and take it home. I’ve done this often. So, I ordered a bottle. When the wine was presented, I had just under half of my glass of white left, but I abandoned it. An older gentleman on my left started asking me questions about wine. He’d overheard my conversation with the bartender and said he always wanted to learn about wine. So, we started talking. I offered him a pour from my bottle and the bartender asked if she could try it, too. As I said, wine is a social thing to me, so I had no problem sharing. Our discussion lasted through the bottle of wine. I don’t know how much I actually drank of the bottle. From my position, I could only see when the bartender refilled his glass, so I estimate I drank half or just under half of the bottle. At this restaurant, they pour to a marker on the glass and it’s always amounted to about 4-5 pours per bottle. The gentleman and I kept talking when I learned about his business, which works along with my own career. It was actually a very educational conversation for me in the end. We each ordered another glass of wine- a lighter red that was too sweet after the robust wine in the bottle.
About halfway through my glass, my heartburn and migraine came back full force. I had to leave. I paid my tab (the gentleman was so grateful that he paid for the bottle) and left. The temperature had dropped significantly and the wind had picked up. I had not been appropriately dressed even for the warmer day temperature, so I was freezing and shaking the entire way back to the car. While I walked, I kept asking myself if I was okay to drive. I studied my gait, my reaction time, how my eyes focused- everything. I didn’t want to take any chances. It would be easy enough to call my husband. I sat in my car with the engine on for 15 minutes while it warmed up and went through all this questioning of myself again. I checked my contacts- they tend to get dry when I’m buzzed- but I was fine. I honestly felt good. I didn’t feel anywhere near drunk or even tipsy. Plus, I’d had 3-4 glasses of wine with water in between over the course of 5 or so hours (following the ‘one serving per hour’ rule). So, I relaxed and drove out of the garage. I headed onto the highway and as I drove up the ramp, my cell phone fell from the top compartment into the center console. My center console is a mess. I waited until I got onto the highway before rummaging around for the phone. I should have left it alone. Instead, I took a moment to look down and locate the phone, glanced at my GPS (I always have it on in case of traffic or detours), and when I looked up, I saw I was heading toward a Jersey barrier that was jutting out in the road around a turn. I turned, but the car glanced the barrier. I would find out later that the barrier had caught my tire and pulled it so hard that it broke the axl. The car came to a very sudden stop- I went from 57mph (based on the GPS unit) to 0 in a second. This is where things got a little hazy.
I remember calling my husband- I was crying (‘hysterically’ as he would later tell me). I was trying to tell him where to find the insurance company’s phone number and trying to figure out where exactly I was. This stretch of highway is extremely dark and hazardous. In fact, a month later a local news channel did a piece on this part of the road because there were so many accidents around where I’d had mine (also evidenced by the numerous other scrapes on the same barrier). I couldn’t see any signs to judge how far away I was from the next exit, but I knew the general vicinity of where I was. I know I told him I was really worried about my car and how I was positioned. The shoulder at this turn is about half a car’s width. I knew I was sticking out into the highway and traffic was whizzing by me. I was scared I’d get hit. I had turned on my flashers, but there was no way I was getting out of the car of getting out the car because other cars wouldn’t see me and if they hit my car, I might get run over. There were five lanes of highway, too- so running to the other side to get away was not an option, either. I’d watched enough of those ‘Scariest Police Chases’ to have seen plenty of incidents where people have been nearly killed doing something like that.
White lights came up behind me with intermittant yellow flashes- they were blinding. A man came up to my vehicle and I rolled down the window. I told my husband someone was there and I had to talk with them. I hung up the phone and spoke with the man. He asked if I was okay and I said I thought I was. I hadn’t taken a moment to really check that- I don’t recall feeling much other than just being generally upset. I couldn’t stop crying. This fellow didn’t tell me who he was and the lights were making it difficult to see, but I could just make out the uniform’s EMT patch. Other lights came up between his vehicle and mine- these were blue, so I figured this was a police car. Sure enough, an officer came up to the car and asked me if I was okay, he asked me for my license and registration (which I easily produced), and then asked me how much I’d had to drink that night. I was as honest as I could be- I told him it was somewhere between 3-4 glasses of wine. He had me get out of the car. I remember being petrified by this- I was imagining a speeding car coming up behind the vehicles, pushing them into us. I also remember being extremely cold. The temperature was around 30, it was a clear night, and the wind was worse than outside the garage. I started shaking, wrapping my arms around myself. The officer told me he was going to put me through some field sobriety tests. I had no reaction to this except to keep crying. All of this, as I said, was a little hazy to me. Later, it was suggested to me that I probably had a concussion from the sudden stop from the accident. I wouldn’t recall the breathalyzer until I was at the station. I can only recall three of the four other tests he performed. There was the light/pen test, the ABC test, and the walk heel/toe and turn test. The fourth test I didn’t recall until later when I read the police report was where you stand on one leg. I barely remember the light/pen test. I remember screwing up on the ABC test. I was flustered. The officer kept saying ‘don’t sing it, don’t sing it’ while I was trying to recite the alphabet. I got stuck at ‘P’, which is normal for me. It’s just a quirk of mine- I have to sing it. But I got through on the second attempt, all the while he’s still saying ‘don’t sing it, don’t sing it’. The walk heel/toe and turn test was tough. I was in 3″ heels on lots of gravel and glass and shaking from the cold. He had made me keep my hands at my side when I started the tests. I couldn’t feel my feet after just a few minutes outside the car. My fingers, nose, ears, and lips had gone numb. The officer saw my shoes and asked if I wanted to take them off, but I looked down and saw all the glass and said I’d try it with them on. I took a step and stumbled. So, I asked if I could remove my shoes and he said yes. I had no problems with the test then- I could feel the ground at least and that helped. But a few steps into it, I stopped and asked ‘How many do I take again?’ I had been having a hard time concentrating- it was very frustrating to me. The lights of the vehicles were so blinding I was squinting and couldn’t see well, there was no line to walk, and I was having trouble focusing on anything except fear that we’d be hit, fear about the state of my car, and fear about being scrutinzed. While this was going on, a tow truck had come onto the scene, making it harder to see and my focus was turned to ‘Which company is that?’ and ‘Where are they taking my car?’ The officer repeated the instructions and I had no problems after that. And when I did my turn and walked back to the office heel/toe, I noticed that he didn’t seem to be paying attention. He had started talking with someone else (I couldn’t see who it was because of the lights, but I could make out that he was taller than my officer, who was my height). I kind of shrugged, feeling annoyed that they weren’t watching that I’d completed the test.
Then the officer told me that he was arresting me for a DUI. He read me my rights, handcuffed me (I asked if it was necessary and he said he was sorry, but it was), and put me in his vehicle. At this point, the haziness wore off a little. I have a better recollection of what happened after this. I remember driving to the station, seeing the cage close behind us, and them taking me inside. The station was freezing cold, but at least there was no wind. I sat with a female officer who took my belongings and filled out some paperwork. After that, I was taken to another room by my arresting officer. This room was even colder than the rest of the station. He informed me that he was going to have me do a breathalyzer test, but first we had to sit for 20 minutes for observation. He read from a card that I was not allowed to burp or hiccup during this time, which I thought was absurd. My heartburn was raging and sometimes I burp or hiccup uncontrollably when it’s like that, so I was worried I’d mess up. While we sat there, I was still crying the entire time, we talked. I should say that everyone I encountered on the highway and in the station was extremely nice and friendly except one man I’d meet later. It was a surprise to me because I’d always heard bad things about cops and I was always afraid of them, myself. But they helped to keep things from being worse than they had to be. After the 20 minutes was up, I took an attempt at the breathalyzer. Heartburn keeps me from being able to take a deep breath, so I struggled. I had to do it again. The entire time I’m blowing, the officer is saying ‘Blow harder! Blow harder!’, which I later learned he was not supposed to do. I was successful this time, but the officer said ‘Wow! A .20%! That’s higher than your field breathalyzer!’ It was at that moment I remembered taking a field breathalyzer and I asked ‘What was it then?’ He said it was a .15%. He seemed genuinely surprised about this, but dropped it. I didn’t know what it meant, but I learned later. Another officer came into the room and I asked them both ‘What do I do now?’ They both told me to get a lawyer. I thought that was very nice of them- they could have been very rude- and thanked them. The officer took me to the magistrate and then I was led to a jail cell.
I’d seen all the movies and my impression of a jail cell was way off from the truth. It wasn’t that bad, except they’re very small and there’s only room enough for two people to sit. There was a woman laying on the bench, apparently asleep, and a young girl sitting on the bench with her. About ten minutes later, they brought in another young woman. She was crying. I have very strong motherly instincts- my nickname in college was ‘Mother Hen’- so I hugged her. She seemed to calm down. I learned the young girl was there for underaged drinking (she was 19). She’d been at a party that had been raided and had tried to run from the police. The other girl, 21, had been out drinking and was driving along her street trying to find a space to park near her apartment when a person on the road opened their car door. She hit it. She spent much of the time we were together saying ‘who opens a car door when a car is coming at them?’ over and over. I just kept thinking she was lucky no one had been hurt. The woman on the bench eventually sat up and called her husband on the phone in the cell. The rest of us took turns trying to call, but we couldn’t get through. We learned that the phones won’t call cell phones. The lady called her husband back and took my husband’s name and number. He was going to call my husband. That was really nice, I said, and thanked her. An hour or two later, there were no clocks so we had no idea how much time passed, we were allowed to leave the cell one at a time to make phone calls. I asked the officer for the exact address and gave it to my husband, who said he’d be down there shortly. I had no idea how long I’d be there- the officer standing there said he thought it wouldn’t be more than another hour or so.
Well, he was wrong. The accident happened at about 11:15pm. I got to the station at about 12:15am. I did not get released until almost 7:30am. My poor husband sat in the station waiting for me for about 5 hours. We were told at one point that they decided to wait until the next shift came on to do our paperwork and release us. The young girl tried to argue that they can’t hold us for that long, but I later checked and she was incorrect. At one point, I laid on the floor- there was no where else to sit- and tried to close my eyes for a bit. My migraine was bad, my chest and throat were on fire. An officer came by and asked if we were okay. I told him I could really use some ibuprofen and he nastily said ‘Yeah, I’ll bet you could’, sneered at me, and walked away. He was the only foul character I really encountered there.
Later, I was taken out of the cell to be photographed and fingerprinted. This started me crying again. The last two times I’d been fingerprinted was when I was in elementary school (they fingerprinted kids in case of kidnapping) and then back in 2001 when I was getting my security clearance. And here I was, getting fingerprinted for an arrest. There were some nasty characters in the mens’ cells that hooted and hollered at me when I went by. I tried to keep my head up, but it was humiliating. Eventually, I went back to the cell and waited until they came to release me. There was another wait while I got my things back and visited the bail bondsman. And then, freedom.
It was another humliating moment. My husband was very kind and supporting. He didn’t say much, but I knew he was disappointed. The worry of what I put him through showed on his face. He drove me home and I spent the rest of the day almost catatonic on the bed. I was a little sore from the accident, but I was mostly just so upset with what happened. It was a nightmare that I went over and over and over in my head.
A day later I contacted a lawyer. I learned that many things went wrong the night of my arrest. Parts of my field tests were not conducted properly. This was touched upon in my trial, but the judge kept us from really getting into this. The biggest thing I learned was that breathalyzer tests are highly debatable and some conditions- including acid reflux, which I later learned I had been suffering from probably for years- exacerbate the results. In fact, it turns out my BAC should have been around a .04%, not a .20%. That’s a big difference- not only in the test results, but in the eyes of the law. Anything over a .15% comes with mandatory punishments including an interlock ignition unit and jail time. Also, breathalyzer units are not always properly maintained. States have become more defensive about this- in our state, they block out the calibration field on the certificate so no one can argue the possiblity that a unit wasn’t operating properly. That makes no sense to me- hide something that might have led to a false conviction? My lawyer was not permitted to get any information about the unit except that it was calibrated back in June. It was November when my test was performed and temperatures were significantly different, which plays a huge role in the proper function of these units. It had been freezing in that room in November- there was no heat- and I’ll bet it was quite hot in there in the summer.
I had to delay my trial because of my lawyer. This pushed it back by two months. Those two months were hell. I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat, couldn’t stop worrying. It took a month and a half to get my car back. When the trial finally came, within five minutes in the court room, I could tell the judge wasn’t going to be friendly. He was rude to everyone- cutting people off, trying to push along people, and just generally foul-tempered. We learned that his case load had been overbooked that day, making things worse. And my lawyer found out from the prosecutor that he used to be more understanding and would listen to people, but in the past few years he’d become hard and bitter. I found it interesting that the prosecutor told my lawyer that she wasn’t 100% comfortable with my trial, nor was the arresting officer, who told my lawyer that he wanted to get it removed. We made an offer to the judge to move our case to another judge or postpone the trial because he expected it to run about 2 hours. The judge considered this, but dismissed it and said ‘we’ll see how this goes’. Well, it didn’t go well. Within a few minutes, he had our expert witness, my lawyer, me, and even the prosecutor flustered. He kept interrupting, rolling his eyes, wouldn’t make eye contact, was playing with something on his desk, and kept telling us to move along, but then would reprimand my lawyer when he tried to speed things up. At one point he said ‘Ms. *** paid a lot of money for you to be here, so take your time’, but then he’d chastise him again for going to slow. It was awful. He did agree to remove the BAC certificate from the trial. That was good news. However, then it was over. I was convicted. He had based his decision on the officer’s field sobriety tests. My lawyer was supposed to have gone into those extensively, but the judge wouldn’t have it. In fact, my lawyer seemed to be coming a bit undone. My husband would later say ‘he seemed unprepared’.
The next thing I know, I’m shuffled to a bench to wait for an ASAP (Alcohol Safety Action Program) representative to take me into her office. This was part of my sentence- besides 2 years probation (good behavior) and a restricted license (1 year). My lawyer came over to us in a hurry and said ‘Well, it’s the best we could hope for…you don’t want to file an appeal, do you?’ I was so flustered by what had just transpired and I said no. Back in his office weeks before, he had told me that this was the worst I could hope for- the best would have been a dismissal of the case or at least a reckless driving charge. And then he left. When I finally went into see the rep, she made some comments about my trial to the effect that she didn’t think it had been fair, either. There was too much doubt, but the judge didn’t listen- he probably didn’t care. Once the ASAP rep was done with my paperwork, she told me that I should sit in the courtroom until the judge could sign the paperwork. ‘It shouldn’t take long,’ she said. She was wrong.
That jerk of a judge had everyone that needed his signature sit there in that room until he was done with every case. That was around 4:30pm. So, my husband and I sat there for another 3 hours. People sitting around us made remarks like ‘you’re still here?’ every so often. Finally, I got my document and we could leave. It was exhausting and I was left shaking.
As I go through the mess of a conviction, I still struggle with both the day/night of the accident and the trial. It seemed a lot of things went wrong and it was hard for me to pinpoint what my responsibility in all this was. If I hadn’t had acid reflux, would I have been arrested? Probably not, but that doesn’t make me feel better. It was definitely a life lesson, but I can’t figure out what the lesson really is for me. I wasn’t drunk, I wasn’t even buzzed. My biggest mistake was worrying about where my phone was in my car and not going to the doctor sooner for the heartburn. I think if I could have gone back to that night, I would have requested a blood or urine test and maybe some of this would have been cleared up in my mind. I’m left wondering what my BAC really was and if I had any other responsibility in this conviction. The sad thing is, the biggest thing I can definitely say I’ve learned is that the system is faulty and money is the biggest player in a DUI.
So, now my life will forever be changed by this. I worry about my career. I feel ashamed and humiliated. And now we’re more broke as a result of lawyers fees, expert witness fees, court fines, and treatment program fees. Is this fair? Was this right? Was justice truly served? I think the answers are ‘no’, but I will try to keep going, keep my head up, and move on.