Wrong Turn

Alex Ostroy

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.

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.


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.

MARCH 22, 2001

It's midday, and I drive out to my parents' house. When I was arrested, my folks were on vacation in Florida. Not wanting to ruin their trip, I didn't tell them about my DWI. I have to come clean with my father now, though: a far worse punishment than anything the legal system could dole out.

The longer we visit, the longer I stall, and the worse I feel. It's one of those moments between a father and son that, as we get older, has become increasingly rare. We're chatting and joking like a couple of old pals. He starts talking about how he wants to pay to get a dent on my car fixed. I break down.

"I'm sorry," I say, by way of beginning my confession. "I know I've let you down." His face flushes when I tell him the details of my arrest, then he sits in silence. Finally, he puts his arms around me. "It's okay, boy," he whispers. "We'll get through it."

MARCH 27, 2001

Owing to my infantile anxiety concerning the Driver and Vehicle Services, my temporary, seven-day license has expired. I get a ride out to Plymouth and get in line. A few hours later, I take the computerized test. All of the questions concern limits on alcohol consumption, levels of punishment, and drinking habits (Alcohol is: a) a depressant b) a stimulant c) neither d) fun and can be either, depending on who is drinking).

I then go to the license evaluator, a kindly old gentleman from the Department of Motor Vehicles who will give me a temporary "limited license" so I can drive to work and back. I explain to the evaluator that I'm a reporter and need to be able to drive as much as possible. He grants me my driving privileges from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Monday though Friday, 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. on Saturdays. Sunday will be a day of rest. He also encourages me to "just plead guilty, give 'em your money, and get on with your life."

MARCH 29, 2001

I pay a visit to Paul Rogosheske, an attorney who specializes in DWI cases in Washington, Dakota, and Ramsey counties. Since being arrested, I have received countless letters from ambulance chasers. This guy isn't one of them. I've checked him out with other lawyers and judges I know, and he comes highly recommended. In short, he knows how to work the system.

After we sit down in his office, Rogosheske goes off on drunk-driving lobbyists, whom he considers to be a pseudo-moralistic, money-making lot. When he hears that my intoxication level was .16, he voices concern. Usually, he can get DWIs under .13 reduced to "careless driving" by arguing that the blood alcohol could have been under .10. But when the count is as high as mine was, it's hard to prove that the breath test was faulty. After I tell him the details of my arrest, though, he's convinced we can challenge the revocation in front of a judge and get both the civil and criminal charges thrown out.  

This sounds good, but it makes me queasy. I have suffered plenty of shame, but more importantly, I've been thinking a lot about the arrogance and false sense of invincibility that landed me in this mess. I can't help thinking, in a broader sense, that I've done something that tears at our social fabric. And, painful as it is, I have come to accept that I can't (and maybe shouldn't) sweet-talk my way out of having to pay.

After listening to Rogosheske, however, my own survival instincts start to kick in. Sure, I've made a mistake, but is it really something that should follow me around for the next 10 years (when I can get the DWI wiped off my record)? Suddenly I feel like fighting it. Despite a few remaining pangs of guilt, I sign him up to the tune of $2,000.


By the end of April, Rogosheske secures a copy of Officer Smith's police report and mails it to me. I've been told these things are usually great works of fiction, so I eagerly rip open the envelope.

I'd gone over that evening in my head time and again, but the report has an air of authority that is crushing. Much of Smith's account jibes with mine, which makes it seem all the more credible. Still, there are inaccuracies: Smith writes that I was going 75 mph (I'm reasonably sure I was going 50 mph); that I didn't signal a lane change (I did); and that I blew a .16, not a .12, on the side of the road.

"Good people are often shocked that cops are like everyone else with bad memories and are prone to exaggeration," says former public defender McDonough. "They are not neutral objective fact finders, and they want to win as bad as I do. Ninety percent of all police reports say the motorist had bloodshot eyes, slurred speech, and fumbled through his wallet."

I consult with my attorney, and we find a couple of loopholes. I insist that the report has me pulled over at the wrong location. Rogosheske encourages me to get the records from St. Paul's Budget Towing in order to disprove the officer's account. Smith gave me a vision test without my glasses. I get a letter from my eye doctor explaining that, without my glasses, I would fail any sort of vision test--drunk or sober. Despite all of this, Rogosheske is cautious: "It's your word against his."

I'm supposed to be reflective and apologetic and learning my lesson about the dangers of driving drunk. But, like most people charged with DWI, I'm too busy taking a crash course on outsmarting the cops to be contrite--bending their version of the truth to square with mine.

JULY 9, 2001

The state of Minnesota requires that every DWI offender go through a chemical evaluation to determine if there is a drug or alcohol addiction that needs addressing. The state is willing to provide the service, but I'm told that a county evaluator will be more prone to make you enter a costly treatment program than an independent assessor. I don't know if this is true or not, but I search for someone in the private sector and pay out of pocket.

I find someone who both works for Hennepin County and runs a private business out of his suburban home. On the drive there, I think about the senseless hangovers, the lost hours in bars, and the party conversations abandoned because I needed to get a fresh cocktail. Pulling into the driveway, I'm convinced the guy is going to send me to treatment. Still, I decide to be completely honest.

We sit down and discuss my drinking habits for an hour, beginning with the time I got busted for underage consumption at a buddy's basement beer bash. We talk about how I left booze alone for a couple years, then started drinking again my sophomore year in college. On his desk, I notice stacks of evaluations for relapsed heroin addicts. I open up further.

I tell him I drink four days out of the week, usually beer or wine, sometimes vodka. He seems to think this is a little much, but not out of line. He asks me if I have a good support system of friends and whether I get along with my parents. He also notes that my parents and sister aren't chemically dependent and that I have a full-time job. He tells me that he believes that I don't have any chemical problems. I'm relieved. (It is not lost on me, however, that I'm about to give the guy $150.)  

At the end of his report, he types, "Client does not meet criteria for abuse/dependency." I want to believe him. "At least I'm not a relapsed heroin addict," I think to myself. I thank the guy a little too profusely and head home, trying to beat my 6:00 p.m. curfew.

AUGUST 2, 2001

I meet Rogosheske in a conference room at the top of the Ramsey County courthouse at 8:00 a.m. to go over the game plan for the hearing on my criminal charge. He tells me to consider testifying that, at the time of the arrest, Smith never gave me the chance to call an attorney. It's not true, and I tell him I won't do it. I call Budget Towing again, a last ditch effort to discredit the police report. Once again, they tell me they can't find the report.

We appear in Judge Margaret Marrinan's courtroom, in the Ramsey County Second Judicial District, at 9:15. Rogosheske has maintained all along that the Intoxilyzer 5000 at the St. Paul city jail is inaccurate. It's a flimsy defense, but I realize that blowing a .16 pretty much seals your fate. It's my fault there's not much else he can do. My attorney, the prosecution, and the judge all retire to her chambers.

Waiting in the courtroom, I suddenly don't trust Rogosheske. I also wish I had shined my shoes, had time to get my sport coat altered, and hadn't worn slacks with a mustard stain on the left thigh. In short, I feel vulnerable.

Rogosheske comes back to tell me a deal has been cut, and it's a pretty good one. It comes as a surprise, since I was ready to fight this thing tooth and nail. This is the first time there's been any talk of a deal. The maintenance records, the vision records--they are all for nothing. I will not testify. There will be no jury.

I stand up in front of Judge Marrinan. She seems far too kind, smiling at me and asking me politely if I understand all the charges against me. I'm not sure, but I lie. "Yes, your honor," I whisper. My attorney notes for the record that we will challenge the civil charge later (at the very least, I could get the license reinstatement fee back). Privately, though, I've already decided that I won't fight the revocation.

Judge Marrinan sentences me for two misdemeanor counts of driving with a blood-alcohol content more than .10. I get 60 days in the workhouse, which I don't have to do if I don't violate my one-year probation, and a $300 fine (plus another $40 for processing fees). I'm also required to complete a DWI education program and attend a Mothers Against Drunk Driving seminar. All things considered, it's a light sentence. But that doesn't dawn on me until later. I feel cheated.


I've heard repeatedly that the tome containing the state's DWI laws is the thickest found at the Capitol--thicker than the tax code, heavier than the book on murder. Every year, state lawmakers haggle over at least one new piece of drunk-driving legislation.

The topic du jour is what to do with repeat offenders. Namely, how many DWIs should constitute a felony? Or, to put it in practical terms, what does it take to get chronic drinkers from behind the wheel?

"We've tried jail, and we've tried treatment, and we've tried jail and treatment," Mark McDonough offers. "I'm not sure that this is the way we will find a solution."

There are alternatives that may prove effective, according to Steve Simon--such as taking away license plates, impounding cars, and in-house arrest. "There's all kinds of ways that people want to prevent DWI," he notes.

There were 14,332 repeat offenders in Minnesota last year (just 4,000 fewer than the number of first-time arrests). It's a grim statistic, and both Simon and McDonough will sometimes resort to macabre humor as a way to cope with the reality that, for many repeat offenders and chronic drinkers, license revocation and jail time mean nothing. "You might have to amputate a foot and seal their mouths shut," Simon says with a dry chuckle.  

In 1999, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, nearly the same number of people were stopped for DWI in out-state Minnesota as were stopped in the Twin Cities metro. "In rural Minnesota, driving is essential," Simon notes. "And in most cases, the only place to congregate is in the local tavern."

"It's a revenue source for some cities, especially in rural areas," McDonough says. "I don't think they're saying, 'Troops, go out there and make us money.' But drunk driving is very prevalent out there. There's good money in this."

According to Simon, though, there still isn't enough money to properly deal with the problem: "The trouble is the legislature goes and passes all of these laws, but they don't explain to people how to pay for the criminal justice of it all. The police, the jails, the courts, the programs are all paid for, by and large, with city and county property taxes. Nobody can raise property taxes right now."

Ultimately, McDonough agrees that more resources are needed. He would like to see an emphasis on education and prevention, however. "We've got to start putting more money in the front end," he concludes.

OCTOBER 7, 2001

It's a little before 8:00 a.m. on a Sunday and there's a group of men sitting quietly on folding chairs in a gymnasium at the Anoka County Corrections Facility in Lino Lakes. It feels like I'm in church.

I sit in one of the middle rows and size up the 40-some DWI offenders who were sentenced to come here for a 48-hour stay. Most of them are white and middle class, and they're from suburban and rural Minnesota. I'm bouncing my legs up and down, something I never do, just trying to hurry everything up. It's a waste of energy.

"Okay, guys, I think I got everybody in here," says our supervisor, a thin man with a thick Minnesota accent who looks to have lived 45 very hard years. "My name's Rick, and I know none of you want to be here, and if any you want to go, just get up and go right now. In fact, you can go anytime you want during the next two days. But I'll have to write you down for violating your probation, and believe me, when they catch up with you, they're gonna put ya next door, in high security, for 30 days at least. So, I can't make you stay, but you make the choice, alright?"

Nobody flinches.

Rick points out that, as a recovering alcoholic, he's "had plenty of wild-ass times" and has more DWIs than most of us put together. "I'm not here to lecture you, or say that any of you are alcoholics, or that you need help," he says. This is not a treatment program: "It is a place where we're going to learn how to keep all of you from getting a DWI again, and maybe, in the process, we will all learn a bit about ourselves."

I like the guy and I decide that, although I'm scared as hell, I'm going to listen to what he has to say. He checks everyone in and goes through their bags looking for drugs, alcohol, and tobacco. He then makes sure we've all paid $105 for the program and gives everyone a Breathalyzer.

Later in the day we start watching the sort of "Just Say No" videotapes that rarely resonate with anyone anymore; they combine chilling footage of fatal accidents with testimonies from drunk-driving survivors. They work on me. So does the exercise where we take a real DWI case and decide the sentencing; each group dishes out a hard-nosed punishment.

As the day goes by, I study the faces in the group. In most cases, I see myself.

OCTOBER 8, 2001

It's just before lights out, and I'm thinking about a session when we drunk drivers each told the story of our arrest.

As I drift off to sleep, I think of the 21-year-old kid who was pulled over and blew a .30. He blacked out his entire arrest and he has the shakes all weekend. I think about the guy we all call Pops, a 70-year-old man who was pulled over after picking up his wife from the VFW and forgetting to turn his headlights on. And I think about the roofer from a northern suburb who has gotten into two drunken bar fights since his DWI, and admits, matter-of-fact, that he will probably drink and drive again.

But mostly, I think about myself, and how many times I have driven drunk and gotten away with it. I remember all of the times I convinced myself I would get home safe, never get pulled over, and never hurt anyone else. And then I think about how, since my DWI, I have yet to get behind the wheel if I've had even a whiff of alcohol.  

OCTOBER 9, 2001

It's 6:00 a.m. We've vacuumed the cells, scrubbed the toilets, emptied the garbage, and taken quick showers. We wait for our names to be called. We each get a card saying we completed the program. I step into the courtyard of the Anoka County Corrections Facility and catch a chill from the morning air. It's been just two days, but as I get in my car and head home, I can't help but feel a little out of synch with the outside world.

The sun is starting to come up as Minneapolis appears to the south. I curse at the morning traffic jam, collect my thoughts, and keep driving.

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