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Dinah Lenney Headshot

Under the Influence

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"Have you had anything to drink, Madam?" asked the patrolman.

"Yes, I have," I answered. Slowly. Hesitatingly. Because I'm a bad liar, that's why.

"What did you have to drink, Madam?" he asked.

"I had one glass of wine."

He smiled. I smiled back.

"What time did you have it, Madam?" (Stop calling me Madam, I wanted to say.)

"Around 7," I lied again. Though later I revised to say it could have been 8.

Was it because I'd lied that I otherwise cooperated so fully? I felt guilty, it's true. Also true: I didn't know my rights. I didn't know, and the officer wasn't saying, that I could have presented him with a statement downloaded from the internet, refusing to answer his questions without my attorney. Which, chances are, I wouldn't have done anyway -- just as it didn't occur to me to lie outright (though I later discovered that's how it's done. Next time, clucked friends in disbelief, just say no.) I wasn't drunk and I wasn't worried. I was a middle-aged woman in possession of a driver's license, conservatively dressed, honest to a fault (if not entirely), and I assumed all that worked in my favor. Although, disconcerting, I also believed the policeman when he told me I hadn't done well on his pen test -- which he administered through the driver's side window and directly under an enormous street lamp.

"That light is shining in my eyes," I said.

"Yes, madam, I see you're having trouble." He smiled again. Such a smiley policeman. "Please pull your car over there."

And then: "Please get out of your car, Madam," he said. He was just so nice. He even advised me to take off my clogs before we got started.

You admit you had two drinks, you're going to get hate mail, says a friend. She considers: You could write that you had one... But I didn't have one; I had two, in the space of almost three hours. I also ate two rolls, which is harder to admit, and a dinner-sized Caesar with prawns. The waiter filled my water glass twice at least, and I gobbled my share of a chocolate bread pudding. It had been, in my estimation, a moderate evening (never mind the rolls); civilized and grown up 'til I found myself standing in my socks on the sidewalk -- a little old lady in Pasadena -- too old, that is, to be balancing on one leg and counting to 30 with my eyes closed. What's more, for the record, I'm not actually so little: A flat-footed 5'8", I'm the sort of woman who shouldn't be eating rolls before dinner. My blood alcohol concentration (I looked it up), which came in at .013 percent (no need for suspense), has to be over .03 to affect my behavior: .08 percent constitutes breaking the law.

Listen: I knew I wasn't drunk. But if he thought I was, why not ask me to take the breathalyzer right off the bat? Why put me through the paces, that's what I want to know. Whereas maybe you want to know why I didn't just ask for it? It never occurred to me. I'm a card-carrying goody two shoes. I do as I'm told. I feel criminal if I manage to get my tweezers through airport security. So I figured I deserved the officer's scrutiny; not because I was tipsy -- rather, because I'd fibbed.

The fact is, though, I shouldn't have been stopped in the first place. The next day I discovered that DUI checkpoints are prohibited in 12 states. Weighing in on a case in Michigan, Justice Brennan insisted they're in violation of the fourth Amendment. Justice Rehnquist prevailed, however, in a five/four decision. Such a little violation, it's worth it, he said.

No surprise, the American Beverage Institute doesn't agree: they insist that the checkpoints waste hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars -- that we'd be better off if the police were actually patrolling the highways; and anyone who's ever watched a car careening from lane to lane would concur.

Yet MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Drivers) insists the checkpoints are effective -- as does Lt. T. from the Pasadena sheriff's office. After I left seven messages, he called back to say that the roadblocks serve as a deterrent: According to him, out of something like 1500 cars, 20 to 25 are pulled over in the course of an evening, and four or five of those drivers go to jail. I didn't ask how it served an officer of the law to put me through a round of party tricks, for which performance I deserved a prize as opposed to more questions. And yet: Do you take medication? my patrolman quizzed. Do you wear contact lenses? How did you sleep last night? Are you certain you only had one glass of wine? I answered and answered and answered. I thought I was proving myself to be not just law-abiding, but beautifully coherent, besides. But my responses appeared to antagonize him. All of sudden he was waving his pen in my face again: bound and determined, I can only infer, to trip me up.

"We will do a second eye test," he said.

"Why?"

"Are you refusing to do the eye test, Madam?"

"Of course not," I said. But I wasn't apprised (all over again) about the correct administration of the horizontal nystagmus test. I didn't know till the next day that it isn't definitive in the first place: that jerky eye syndrome can be caused by, among other things, eye strain and fatigue (it was almost midnight; I read for a living). Nor had I yet learned that the pen must be 10 to 15 inches from the suspect's face -- that there would have been no reason whatever to touch its point to the end of my nose. Therefore, when it landed there ever so lightly, well-behaved as I am, I dutifully crossed my eyes. Then giggled, to prove what a good sport I am. At which point, he said:

"Madam. I think you're inebriated."

"Based on what?"

"You have performed poorly, Madam."

"Wait just a minute! I stood on one leg! I touched my nose with my fingers! I walked that line perfectly!"

"Based on the results of this pen test, Madam, you have nystagmus. I must ask you to take a breathalyzer. If you have not lied to me, you will have no problem taking this test."

"And if I don't want to?" (Now I was annoyed.)

"I will arrest you."

"And if I fail the breathalyzer?"

"I will arrest you. Are you uncomfortable taking the breathalyzer, Madam?"

Lt. T. insisted, when I asked, that the sheriff's office isn't looking to meet quotas. But my officer (why didn't I ask for his badge number?) very definitely wanted me to refuse his breathalyzer. He wanted to bring me in.

"I'll take it," I said.

"You want to take it?" he asked. "You're sure?"

"May I go home if I don't take it?"

"You may not," he said.

"Well, then, let's do it, please."

Minutes later, he showed me my score. "You're lucky, madam." He squinted at me. "The breathalyzer has worked to your benefit." As if the breathalyzer were wrong.

The next day, during all that Googling, I found Justice Stevens' dissenting opinion in Michigan, in which he wrote: "The findings of the trial court, based on an extensive record and affirmed by the Michigan Court of Appeals indicate that the net effect of sobriety checkpoints on traffic safety is infinitesimal and possibly negative."

"What now?" I asked the officer, still waiting for permission -- still in good-girl mode. And here's why I'm surer than ever that Justice Stevens was right; certain, too, that my California Highway Patrolman didn't mean to protect or serve or save anybody. Not because he didn't apologize, or wish me good night, but because he answered as if he were not just disappointed but bored. "You can go home," he said turning from me, without so much as meeting my eye. And he didn't advise me to drive safely.