Wrong Turn

Think you can get away with drinking and driving? So did I.

The first thing I notice when I look out the window is the State Capitol building: The symbol of democracy, a pre-dawn hue dancing on its dome, is shining atop a hill in the dark. I hear the guard chatting with some guys a few cells down. It's wake-up time at the St. Paul city jail. I swore up and down that I would never again go out on St. Patrick's Day, let alone one that fell on a Saturday night. Then I got a call at 8:30 p.m. from a friend and did exactly that--drank with vigor for three hours, then tried to get home before bar time. Driving through a pack of cars, fueled with the hubris of seven rum drinks, I made an abrupt lane change and got nabbed.

Now, just a few hours later, my emotions swing from despair to relief and back again. I should have known better. I wasn't that drunk. I could have killed somebody.

I get off my bunk, approach the cell bars, and begin to consider just how long I'll be stuck here. It feels like midday, but it's dark. It only takes a few minutes to realize that time has a way of hauling ass in day-to-day life; in jail it deserts you completely. I'm suddenly sick with panic. I hail the guard to find out the time. He comes and raps his nightstick lightly on my knuckles. I take this as a sign of companionship. I'm mistaken.

"You're on my clock now. And that's all that matters," he answers with a chuckle. "Breakfast soon."

I fret over whether I'll get out in time to make it to work on Monday. I wonder if my girlfriend has been trying to track me down, and I think about what friend I can wake up to bail me out. I know that my parents will be devastated. Then it dawns on me: No one even knows I'm here.

I crawl back onto my cot and cry silently into my leather jacket. Then I try to fall asleep.


MARCH 17, 2002

This week, I solemnly celebrate the one-year anniversary of my first and, if I have anything to say about it, only DWI arrest. I am not alone. Last year, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, of the 32,593 alcohol-related driver's license revocations in Minnesota, 18,261 were the result of first-time offenses. There were 7,000 second-time offenders and 3,500 underage drinkers.

In 2000, 5,750 crashes were alcohol-related, costing the state $329 million and resulting in 245 fatalities (two-thirds of those killed were the drunk drivers themselves). Over the last 15 years those numbers have fluctuated only slightly.

"Alcohol is the drug of choice for our culture, it's the bedrock. It goes along with our love of the car," says Steve Simon, a professor at the University of Minnesota who, for the last 20 years, has been on the DWI Task Force for the state's criminal justice system.

American culture has revolved around cars and booze for so long, in fact, that it's hard to imagine a society without either. For several years now, drinking and driving has become increasingly unacceptable, but old habits die hard--literally.

There's a good chance someone you know has a DWI conviction. There's an even greater chance that you have climbed behind the wheel after a few too many and snaked home hoping no one would notice. Well, someone noticed me. And this is what I learned and would love to forget.


MARCH 17, 2001

I'm sitting at a stoplight, about to get on I-94 just west of downtown St. Paul. Some dudes in the car behind me are tossing full soda bottles to the car ahead of me. I yell out my open window for them to knock it off. The drivers honk at each other and crank their sub-woofers. I remember the bartender saying she shouldn't let me drive. I told her I was fine, but now I'm not so sure. The light goes green.

The freeway is packed and traffic is moving about 45 mph; the cops have already pulled over a number of cars, which sit on the shoulder. The vehicle that was behind me at the light is still riding my tail. The driver in front of me keeps hitting his brakes. I hit the gas and quickly change lanes, not noticing the St. Paul police car 50 yards back. His lights go on and I pull over.

Officer R.B. Smith asks me if I know why I was pulled over. I tell him that some guys were messing with me. He says he saw the whole thing, but doesn't care. He can smell the liquor. He takes my license and heads back to his car.

When he comes back, I plead my case. He's patient, but not buying. I jump through the hoops: touch your nose, stare into a flashlight, walk the line. I pass with flying colors, but get the breath test anyway. I blow a .12, just over the legal limit of .10.

Sitting in back of Smith's squad car, I try to tell him that my girlfriend lives just off the next freeway exit. Instead of taking me to jail, he could drop me off there. He offers a cell phone for me to call an attorney. I have no one to call. He tells me that I will have the option to refuse the legal breath test at the station. First I say I will refuse. Then I recant. I don't know what to do. The 22-year-old rookie from Northfield apologizes for having to put me through the wringer. He's just doing his job.

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