It was just after midnight. The lights of the patrol car flashed on and Rick, the 37-year-old businessman in the car ahead, pulled to the side of the road and stopped.
Rick, who requested anonymity, said he had been out drinking with friends, trying to forget the divorce he and his wife of 12 years were going through.
The LAPD officers said Rick had been making frequent lane changes and asked him to step out of his car for a field sobriety test. Rick touched the tip of his nose and attempted to walk a straight line. He was unable to complete the test. He told the officers he was feeling too drunk. Rick soon found himself handcuffed and on his way to jail.
“I cried,” Rick recalled. “I had never been in trouble before and I wondered what the consequences would be. How was I going to face up to certain people?”
Although his arrest happened last year, Rick said he will never forget the experience or the $2,100 he had to pay for court, attorney and first-offender alcohol program fees.
He said he intends never to drive while drunk again. “Since this happened I’m a lot more aware of the consequences. The alcohol program teaches you what it means to get in a car drunk. Second offenders are automatically sentenced to jail. Also, I have children. I would never forgive myself if I hurt somebody else’s.”
Most first-time drunk-driving offenders, unless they have an alcohol problem, will never drink and drive again, said Michael Goins, a California Highway Patrol officer who lectures at a first-offender program in Culver City.
According to statistics provided by the state Department of Motor Vehicles, there is a large drop-off of alcohol-related convictions after the first arrest. In a statewide sampling of 15,000 California drivers enrolled in first-offender alcohol programs and with 90-day license restrictions during the last quarter of 1982, only about 9% were re-convicted of alcohol-related driving offenses during the following year.
“It wreaks havoc with your life once you’re convicted. It can block future employment and promotions on your job. You’ve got a criminal record now, and of course . . . your insurance is going to go real high,” Goins said.
The drunk-driving arrest is just the beginning of the humiliating and expensive ordeal that takes an offender through the jail and court systems and into a 90-day, first-offender alcohol program, Goins added.
Once at the booking facility or jail, the driver must submit to a breath, urine or blood test within three hours after driving the vehicle to determine blood alcohol content (the number of grams of alcohol per 100 milliliters of blood). A finding of 0.10% or higher is considered “driving under the influence” and a violation of California law.
Those arrested can generally expect to stay in detention from six to eight hours or until they can leave on their own recognizance, Goins said.
But “everyday folks like you and myself” don’t want to be there, he added. ". . . a booking facility is not the Hyatt Regency, Maui, I’ll tell you. It’s a dump. It’s a traumatic experience to have to be inside one of those places.”
In California, if death or bodily injury are not involved, first-time drunk drivers can expect to have their cases heard in Municipal Court.
The sentence is fairly standard, Judge Laurence Rubin said. It’s usually three years probation, a fine of $663 (not including attorney and alcohohol program fees), a 90-day license restriction limiting driving to and from work and to and from a required drinking-driver program.
“You can’t commit any other violation of the law,” Rubin added. For example, if you were then to commit a reckless driving (offense), that would be in violation of your probation and give the judge the right to sentence you up to six months in the county jail.”
Rubin believes the court system will deter only those who are not problem drinkers.
“The greatest problem I think judges face is distinguishing between the problem drinker and the social drinker. I can have someone who’s on a first offense who is an alcoholic, but I probably won’t know that. And I think that is the real problem for the judiciary . . . to identify these problem drinkers early, rather than late.”
One indicator of a possible drinking problem is the driver’s blood alcohol content, he said.
“Most social drinkers start feeling the effect of alcohol somewhere around 0.05-0.08%,” Rubin said. “Therefore, when we learn that the person’s blood-alcohol level is . . . 0.15% or greater, it’s a pretty good bet that the person is a problem drinker.”
With few exceptions, the law requires that first offenders on probation must complete an alcohol program approved by the state. If he believes the defendant has a drinking problem, it has been Rubin’s practice to impose weekly Alcoholics Anonymous meetings for six months--in addition to the usual 90-day program. “That way, there are some controls over this person,” he said.
The final stage of the process, the alcohol or first-offender program, provides the convicted drunk driver with one last reminder of the consequences of drinking and driving.
The Office of Alcohol Programs, Los Angeles County Department of Health Services publishes a list of 101 first-offender alcohol programs approved by the county Board of Supervisors. The courts provide the list to those convicted, leaving the choice of program up to them.
In Los Angeles County, such programs must include 30 hours of group sessions and instruction in addition to attendance at six Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. The maximum cost of the program is $231.
The Alcoholism Council-West Area in Santa Monica is one of the agencies approved by the county to conduct a first-offender program.
The program is administered very seriously, according to Arlee Hains, program director. “They have to sign a contract promising not to drink for the next three months. They have to commit to be here on schedule (three hours each week). They can have one unexcused absence with a $5 penalty fee. If they miss twice, they go back to court.”