Wrong Turn

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

After arriving at the St. Paul police station, Smith sits with me until the Intoxilyzer 5000 is free for use. He seems to be stalling for me. And I'm grateful--until I find out later that a person's blood-alcohol content actually rises for a couple of hours after the last drink. When my turn finally comes, I blow a .16.

A disembodied female in the booking room asks if I have an employer. "Fuck you," I say, as a light bulb flashes. "What difference does that make?" After being photographed and fingerprinted, I apologize to everyone for the outburst. There's no response.

Before being taken to my cell, I'm frisked for the fourth time. Two officers take my glasses, wallet, and belt. Then they ask for my shoelaces.


MARCH 18, 2001

It's 3:20 P.M. and, looking out the cell window, I see a friend's car pull into the parking lot outside the station. My heart sinks as I see my girlfriend walking up to the door with a wad of cash in her hand. A few minutes ago, I was muttering under my breath, wondering what was taking her so long. Now I can tell by looking at her that she is at least as scared as I am. I've already damaged the relationship--my arrest is something she'll never come to terms with.

On my way out, I'm handed a plastic bag containing my glasses, my shoelaces, even 85 cents in change from the bar--everything but my driver's license. The officers at the front desk tell me it's been revoked, and that I'll probably lose my driving privileges--but I might not. The uncertainty will prove to be torturous. They tell me how to get to the city impound lot to retrieve my car (towing fee: $90), then give me a seven-day driving permit; it's been signed by Officer Smith and my blood-alcohol content (.16) is prominently displayed. I'm told that I will get a court date in the mail.

As I pass through the lobby, my friends get in line behind me to go out the door. It's been 15 hours since my arrest and I'm grateful to be walking out, but I can see the pain on their faces. We get in the car and I embrace them both--crying again.


LEGAL LESSON NUMBER ONE: THE CIVIL RUNAROUND

Those who get a DWI are charged with two violations: one is criminal, the other civil. The criminal charge, which is for driving while intoxicated, can result in both a $1,000 fine and 90 days in jail. The civil charge stems from a law known as "implied consent," and automatically results in license revocation. Simply stated, the concept of "implied consent" says that if you are pulled over for suspicion of driving drunk, it violates the terms of your driver's license. If you are stopped and the police officer believes you've been drinking, your license can be revoked on the spot, and a written test and a $300 reinstatement fee are required to get it back.

Plead not guilty to the criminal charge and you face a jury. Try to wiggle out of the civil charge, and a judge will determine your fate. Hypothetically, it can be to your advantage to get a favorable ruling from a judge on the civil charge, especially if there are questions about the police work surrounding the arrest. And if you win on the civil side, sometimes the criminal charge is dropped. Civil cases often boil down to a cop's word against the defendant's, however, so guilty verdicts are commonplace (according to some defense attorneys, revocations are overturned less than three percent of the time). As a result, those nabbed for DWI rarely fight the civil charge.

The practice of essentially charging DWI offenders twice rankles attorneys like Mark McDonough, a former public defender in Dakota County for 17 years who now has a private practice. He argues that since the civil charge is more or less automatic, it puts defendants at a disadvantage if they decided to challenge the criminal charge. "Revocation can be used to advance future charges."

What's more, McDonough argues, instant revocation violates a person's right to due process. "To be fair, we have to give them the constitutional privilege we give to others," he says. "Revocation violates that."

The U of M's Steve Simon is quick to counter that no other driving violation is as heinous as driving drunk, and suspicion alone justifies revocation. "Driving is a privilege, not a right," Simon emphasizes. "Implied consent law says that by driving you agree to submit to this test."

Simon says Minnesota should be applauded for being one of the few states to "criminalize refusal," meaning that anyone who won't take a breath or blood test is automatically charged with a misdemeanor. Those charged with DWI receive a court date upon posting bail and leaving jail, Simon says. And anyone can demand to have an immediate hearing to contest revocation.


MARCH 20, 2001

I make my way to the west metro branch of Minnesota's Driver and Vehicle Services in Plymouth to get my license reinstated. It's the same place I took my driving exam when I was 16 years old, and that alone floods me with feelings of adolescent doom. The lines are long. After two hours, I write a check for $308.50 to get my license reinstated. The woman behind the desk tells me it's a good idea to study a few special chapters in the state driver's manual to prepare for the DWI test. I'll have plenty of time to study. The place is about to close.

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