In the driver’s seat
A look at DUI from both sides of the law
A familiar voice came over the radio. Police Officer Travis Johnsen responded immediately by turning his car in the opposite direction and slightly increasing its speed.
A man had hit a tree and power pole driving a white Suburban, dispatch reported.
Firemen already on the scene had found the driver, who had emerged from the wreckage unscratched and was wandering aimlessly around the residential area. The red lights of the fire engine lit his face.
“I’m fucked up,” he told Johnsen, looking over his shoulder to steal glances at the compacted white mass he recognized as his own. Groups of firemen worked to separate the Suburban from the severed power pole. “I just bought that for my family,” he continued, speaking in slow, garbled syllables.
As other officers stood around the man, Johnsen walked back to the passenger side of his police car and grabbed an 11-inch card from a pocket in the door and systematically folded it in half.
The card had roughly 25 questions about the suspect’s vehicle, whether the driver had any illnesses that could contribute to erratic driving, as well as the eating and drinking habits from that day.
Knowing his fate, the large man humbly turned around and placed one wrist over the other.
“Wait a minute,” Johnsen said. “Can you do a few things for me first? I want to ask you a couple questions. Where were you coming from?”
He turned around and pointed to the obvious path his SUV had traveled from the street to the sidewalk.
“Where were you going?”
“Dude, I don’t even know. Please, can you just arrest me?”
“You’re doing really well,” Johnsen said, attempting to coax the man into the field sobriety tests. “I just need you to do a few more tests for me.”
Johnsen’s raised index finger drifted slowly to the right, before going back to the left side in front of the man’s face. Standard field sobriety test procedure.
As one of two nighttime traffic officers for the Chico Police Department, Johnsen is part of a specialized team that concentrates exclusively on crimes that happen on the road. There is a 2,000-page book specifically dealing with vehicle codes of law, which officers must interpret on their own.
“We could literally pull people over for anything,” Johnsen said.
But Johnsen and his partner, Tony Ferreira, focus on catching speeders and those who drive drunk. The two have worked together for only a year, but both understand the code the same way, agreeing on what they believe are the most important parts.
After staggering through the rest of the field sobriety tests, the driver of the white Suburban blew a .20 into the Breathalyzer. Cuffed and attempting to slide his clumsy frame into the back of the patrol car with Johnsen’s help, the man complained loudly.
Although Johnsen and Ferreira see the law the same way, their personalities mold neatly, yet unintentionally, into the quintessential good cop, bad cop duo.
Ferreira, as described by Johnsen with a laugh, is all talk.
“I’m patient with [the arrestees] until I get the breath test that I want,” he said. “Tony couldn’t care less.”
In March, Johnsen and Ferreira traveled to Sacramento, where they were recognized at a Mothers Against Drunk Driving banquet for their law-enforcement achievements in Chico.
“Tony and I both like making DUI arrests,” he said. “I feel like I can take an active role in saving innocent people.”
This was Johnsen’s 47th DUI arrest in three months. He’s currently the department’s record holder for DUI arrests in a single year. As of late September, the number had reached 145 for 2008, beating the record he set last year, when he caught 133 intoxicated drivers.
It was the end of February, and Chico State junior Gary Workman was at the second-to-last Chico State men’s basketball game of the season, watching the Wildcats lose at home against Cal State Los Angeles, 93-72.
After the game, Workman, a kinesiology major, and his friends went to Madison Bear Garden. He said he drank a few beers, but couldn’t recall the exact amount.
Toward the end of the evening, he noticed one of his friends, another Chico State student, trying to leave the bar alone after becoming separated from a friend. Workman, who insisted that he felt fine at the time, offered to help her get home.
“She was falling down the steps outside, so I offered to give her a ride,” he said. “She sure as hell wasn’t driving.”
It was shortly after 1 a.m.
Workman considered the possibility of being pulled over, worried about it briefly, but the threat didn’t stick in his mind.
About the same time Workman was watching the Wildcats struggle against Cal State L.A., Johnsen was evaluating the downtown bar patrons. The more people outside the bars the higher the chance of a person driving home intoxicated.
Thursday nights are typically hit or miss—either extremely eventful, or extremely slow—for Chico’s traffic officers.
On nights like this, all Johnsen can do is wait. His patrol car is called a “slick top,” which means it doesn’t have lights on the roof, making him more easily concealed in the shadows.
Operating on the principle that a person’s character can be shown when no one is watching—or unaware that he or she is being watched—Johnsen hides between two commercial buildings that have been vacant for hours, and monitors the parking lots and bar exits.
He watches for people who look like they could be driving drunk. He’s honed skills in determining the subtleties in abnormal driving.
The moment after Workman left the Bear—driving Steele’s car—he became a blip on Johnsen’s radar.
Johnsen and Ferreira work during the prime time for catching people driving under the influence: 5 p.m. to 3 a.m. from Wednesday to Saturday. Within minutes of pulling someone over, another police officer will show up. If they are not riding in the same patrol car, Johnsen and Ferreria attempt to cover each other’s calls.
With the duo, there’s no secret code or calling for backup. After a year of spending 10-hour shifts in a car together, their communication is mostly nonverbal while working at a scene.
“We know what needs to be done,” Johnsen said. “And we do it.”
A mounted laptop on the dashboard shows the location of calls that are phoned or radioed into dispatch within the last 24 hours of each day, numbered and color-coded for importance. Details can be pulled up about the caller as well as the specific details of the complaint.
“If you’re going to have someone out of the car, you want another person on the scene,” Johnsen said. “A person can be totally cooperative, they’ll be your best friend, until you try and put handcuffs on ’em.”
An officer stands watch while the other asks questions and conducts three field sobriety tests: the horizontal gaze test, the walk-and-turn and the one-leg stand.
The horizontal gaze test is when an officer asks the suspect to follow his index finger with his eyes. When a person is intoxicated, his or her eyeballs involuntarily bounce, unable to track the finger smoothly. The more the eyes react, the more inebriated the person is. In court, with the exception of the legally required chemical blood or breath tests, horizontal gaze is the best evidence that the defendant had consumed alcohol.
Studies have shown that this test is somewhere between 77 percent and 83 percent accurate in predicting inebriation, although seizure medications, barbiturates and other depressants may cause a false positive, so other tests are conducted.
The walk-and-turn and one-leg stand tests are operated much like they sound: In the walk-and-turn, the suspect walks nine paces, heel-to-toe, turns 180 degrees and walks back the same way. In the one-leg stand, the suspect stands with one leg about 6 inches off the ground and counts in one-hundreds up to around 30 (one-one hundred, two-one hundred …).
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, these tests are 68 percent and 65 percent accurate, respectively. They test a suspect’s ability to listen to and follow instructions while performing simple physical movements. Someone who is impaired by alcohol has trouble simultaneously concentrating on mental and physical tasks.
Administered incorrectly, the effectiveness of the tests drops to zero. Johnsen has been to a field sobriety instructor’s school, so, not only does he know how to properly carry out a test, he is certified to teach other officers the method.
Engine still purring, interior lights glowing, Johnsen took the car out of park and slipped from the shadows onto First Street, behind Workman.
At the first traffic light, Workman engaged the clutch of his friend’s manual-transmission sport-utility vehicle, and, seeing Johnsen behind him, drove into a nearby gas station.
“I pulled over before he even pulled me over,” he said, clearly recalling the moment more than a month afterward.
In the vacant parking lot, Workman and Johnsen stood, illuminated only by the beam of light created by Johnsen’s Maglite and the faint radiance of the lights above the gas pumps nearby.
“Do you have anything mechanically wrong with your car?”
“Are you sick or injured?”
“I have to ask this, because sometimes people switch places: Were you driving the vehicle?”
Johnsen kicked loose gravel on the pavement out of the way and demonstrated the field sobriety tests.
“That test where you walk nine steps and turn 180 degrees?” Workman recollected. “I was fine going down, fine at the turn—it was number seven on the way back that got me. Number seven. I remember it like it was yesterday.”
The Breathalyzer test is optional. The other option entails being taken into custody and having blood drawn at Enloe Medical Center. Holding up the rectangular device, Johnsen asked if Workman would like to participate.
Workman lifted his hands. “Well, I don’t want to,” he said to Johnsen. “But I guess I have to …”
As he blew onto the disposable plastic piece attached to the Breathalyzer, a high-pitched noise accompanied his breath. After being told to stop, red letters displayed a .10 BAC.
Johnsen then offered Workman the customary options of either taking a blood test at Enloe or a second breath test at the police station to back up the Breathalyzer results.
“What should I do?” Workman mumbled.
With a blood test, the suspect can save it and use it later in court, but the breath goes right out the back of the machine, so we can’t get it back later if you want to fight the charges, Johnsen explained, shifting his weight.
Workman chose the blood test, and the cuffs were placed on his wrists, making a clicking noise as reality quickly tightened around his skin.
“This is my car!” Workman’s passenger screamed. “I’m going to drive home.”
She kicked her legs as two other officers pulled her out of the vehicle. She had attempted to crawl from the passenger side into the driver’s seat.
“Drop the keys,” one officer told her in a stern voice. When nothing happened, he repeated himself.
With both arms restrained behind her back, the keys fell to the ground.
“Are you happy?” she demanded of the officers. “Do you think this is justice?”
Still arguing, she was handcuffed and placed in the police cruiser. Workman stepped into the back seat of Johnsen’s car as he watched.
At Enloe, no one seemed to notice that it was past 1 a.m. Bright, fluorescent lights and muted colors were everywhere. Separate from the outside world, the inside of the hospital buzzed.
Recognized immediately by the hospital staff, Johnsen walked Workman to an unoccupied gurney. Taking a large set of jingling keys from his belt, Johnsen unlocked the handcuffs from Workman’s wrists. Traced on his skin, a neat red line went all the way around both wrists.
Workman sat down on the gurney and slid back against the wall as Johnsen began filling out paperwork.
“What’s your Social Security number, Gary?” he asked, clipboard in hand.
Workman provided it and quickly added, “Do I get extra points for knowing that?”
“No, Gary,” Johnsen chuckled.
Just then, a nurse came over. Bending slightly at the waist, she began looking at Workman’s arms, poking the crux of his right in search of large veins. Workman covered his eyes with his baseball cap. As the needle was inserted, his face contorted.
Blood dripped slowly—too slowly—so the nurse wiggled the needle to try to increase the flow. Workman bit down on the bill of his hat and let out a long, muffled grunt.
The nurse decided to switch the needle to the other arm. Workman placed his hand over his eyes.
“All for the girl, man,” he said.
“They’ll get you every time,” Johnsen replied.
“Story of my life, man.”
Workman’s blood test came back with a .12 BAC. He was able to plea bargain the charge to a “wet-and-reckless,” which means the fees are reduced, but it still counts as a prior offense if he’s pulled over for a DUI in the next 10 years.
According to the California Office of Traffic Safety’s 2006 statistics for Chico, alcohol was involved in about 32 percent of all collisions where someone was injured, killed or both.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported in its most recent statistics that there were 4,229 fatal traffic accidents in California in 2006. Of the 1,509 alcohol-related fatalities, 1,276 occurred when the highest blood alcohol level (BAC) in the crash was above the legal limit of .08.
In the back of Johnsen’s patrol car, the large man who just had run his Suburban into the power pole squirmed in his handcuffs. He kept speaking in circular sentences, repeating words and worrying about his car, his family and the discomfort of the metal bracelets he continually found himself wearing.
“I fucked up,” he prattled. “Now I’m a criminal.”
Johnsen did not avert his gaze from the road as he said without hesitation: “I don’t think you’re a criminal—you just messed up.”