Operating Under The Influence

People sometimes ask me, “Are we really safe?” Some people fear burglars, some fear assaults, some fear vandalism. Some simply fear the dark.

So, I decided to ignore everyone’s fears and deal with reality. I decided to discuss the subject that should be your biggest fear. To identify the most random acts of violence that occur with the most frequency. To highlight the crime that victimizes more innocent people than any other. To narrow the topic down to the crime that most frightens police officers.

Any guesses?

I’ll give you a hint. No matter where you live in the U.S., it goes by a nickname of three initials.

Need another?

No matter what it’s called, it indiscriminately maims, kills, and destroys families.

Keep thinking.

It is the most frequently committed violent crime in the United States.


Nationally, it kills an average of two people per hour, 45 per day, and 315 per week with no regard for age, gender, race, or religion. Last year, 15,786 people were killed.

Give up?

The answer is OUI – operating under the influence of alcohol.

Did you know that there’s a difference between an “accident” and a “crash”? One involves chance. The other involves an intentional act that endangers lives. That intentional act is getting behind the wheel after consuming alcohol.

More people are arrested annually for OUI than for any other crime except larcenies. Approximately one percent of the national population is arrested for OUI every year.

So, how serious is it? Does the term “it’s like shooting fish in a barrel” mean anything? That’s what you’ll hear if you ask a police officer how easy it would be to find a drunk driver if the officer had no other responsibilities. Unfortunately, with minimum shift strength and strict budget constraints, we don’t have many opportunities to go fishing. We have to be content to grab the OUI‘s that cross our paths while we are answering calls for domestics, responding to alarms and handling fights in bars.

It amuses us when defense attorneys claim that their clients were targeted by overzealous officers who “troll” the streets around bars, hoping to catch an innocent driver exiting the parking lot. After reading these statistics, wouldn’t you prefer that your officers had time to actively pursue people who drive while impaired? We certainly wish we had the time to “troll”. Imagine! Time to catch drunk driver after drunk driver and prevent fatal crashes and innocent pedestrian deaths!

Fat chance.

We finish one call, hoping to catch our breath before the next, and stumble across a car that’s weaving. That’s all we have time for. And that’s where the odyssey begins.

An arrest for OUI is the most time consuming event in a police officer’s shift.

The stop of an erratic driver can take between 20 minutes and several hours. Twenty minutes for the questioning of a driver who swerved while sneezing. Several hours for visiting the victim’s family when a drunk driver kills. The only guarantee is that we have removed a potential killer from the roadways.

The paperwork is overwhelming. While booking the prisoner, we explain that, in Massachusetts, he does not have a “right” to a breath test. Rather, he is deemed to already have consented to take a breath test, simply by virtue of his driving on a public way in the state of Massachusetts. If he refuses the test, we are required to fill out even more forms to suspend his license. Once the intricate booking procedure is complete, we begin compiling a report. A report that hardly seems worth the effort when it is torn to shreds in a court of law.

Our report will cover how the operator’s driving caught our attention, how he responded to our questions, and whether he smelled of alcohol or appeared intoxicated. It will contain information about the operator’s performance on the field sobriety tests, his blood alcohol content according to a Preliminary Breath Test (PBT) at the scene, and his alcohol content as determined by the Breathalyzer at the police station. It will include all of the information that led us (and would lead a reasonable juror - a member of his peers) to conclude that he was, in fact, operating while under the influence of alcohol.

Unfortunately, not all of that pertinent information will be presented to the jury.

Did you know that an operator cannot legally refuse to perform field sobriety tests? Did you know that if he does refuse, the refusal cannot be mentioned to the jury? If you were a juror, would you wonder why the officer didn’t mention those tests? Would you think the officer forgot to ask the operator to perform them? Would the thought that the officer was remiss influence your decision about the operator’s sobriety?

It gets better.

Did you know that we use the roadside Preliminary Breath Test (PBT) to confirm that the conclusions we drew from the operator’s driving and his performance on the field sobriety tests were correct? Did you know that, as a juror, you aren’t allowed to reach that same conclusion because the PBT results cannot be admitted as evidence?

Wait, there’s more.

Did you know that an operator’s refusal to take the Breathalyzer at the police station is not admissible in court? In fact, no one will even mention whether the test was offered. If you were a juror, would you wonder why all references to the infamous Breathalyzer had been ommitted? Would you think the officer forgot to administer the test? Would you think it meant that the operator had passed the test?

My response as a juror, as a parent, as a driver, as a member of the community threatened by this operator’s complete disregard for safety would be, “What’s up with that?”

If you call the courthouse and ask what percentage of the operators arrested for OUI were actually convicted of OUI, you won’t get an answer. Those statistics are not available. If you know any police officers, ask them what percentage of their arrests either go to trial or are convicted of OUI. The answer will disgust you.

Most OUI arrests result in dropped or reduced charges. Those slaps on the wrist result in repeat offenses. Statistics compiled by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) show that about one third of all OUI arrests are repeat offenders. One third of the people driving drunk in your town have been arrested for OUI before.

Some of them were stopped and arrested soon after leaving the bar. Some of them drove badly enough to contribute to a crash between two other cars. Some of them struck and injured pedestrians. Some of them struck and killed pedestrians. Some of them were involved in crashes themselves. Some of them were injured. Some of them injured their passengers. Some of them were killed. Some of them killed their passengers. All of the people involved were doing what we all do every day of our lives – using our roadways. All of the people involved were someone’s friend, someone’s child, someone’s neighbor. All of the people involved could have been you.

We try to help our intoxicated friends by taking their keys because we are worried for their safety. Maybe we should start a campaign to take the keys from our sober friends, too. We should also take bicycles from our children. And ban lovers from strolling the sidewalks hand in hand. And forbid grandmothers from walking their grandchildren to the park. And outlaw jogging.

As long as there are people who drink and drive, everyone near the road is at risk.

We have a poster in the lobby of the police station that shows a crumpled car wrapped around the base of a big tree. The caption reads, “If you drive drunk, you’ll be lucky if it’s a cop that stops you.” Perhaps the caption should read, “If you use our roadways, you’ll be lucky to get home alive.”

Does that answer your question?

Jill Wragg is a retired police officer in Massachusetts.
She can be reached at JKWragg@yahoo.com


Jeffrey Denning, CPS, CMAS said...

Fantastic post, Jill. Keep it up!


Barb M said...

Wow. Those statistics shocked me. I suppose they shouldn't, but they did. I just started reading today. So I'm confused. Arey ou still a cop? Or were you a cop previously?

rose said...

nice blog