Sunday, February 13, 2011

Louisiana DWI Law Double-Standard

In the State of Louisiana, a driver has the legal right to refuse a breathalyzer test should he or she get pulled over by an officer of the law, and should that law enforcement officer attempt to issue the test.  HOWEVER, upon the enactment of HB-445 into law, the penalty for refusing such a test (which is technically legal to do) is the loss of driving privileges for a year for a first-time offense, and two years for any subsequent incidents.

As I found out recently, the standard of openness and transparency so embraced by the state so long as it involves a driver refusing to take the test, is not uniformly applied to situations in which the administration of a breathalyzer test would work to the driver's benefit.

While returning home from a night out with friends in New Orleans, I was pulled over by a St. Tammany Parish Sheriff's deputy near Claiborne Hill in Covington.  I was speeding, and I was caught.  I had not been drinking that evening, a fact the officer called into question.

The officer asked where I was coming from, where I was going, and what I had been doing.  I answered him as straightforward and honestly as I could.  I told him where I had been, what I'd been doing and where I was heading.  Unfortunately for me, while true, my story didn't seem believable.  While it was evident that I was not intoxicated (I hadn't even been drinking --- not even a little), the officer nonetheless put me through an extensive field sobriety test, which I passed with flying colors.

Clearly, something about this situation wasn't registering.  How could it be that a single, 29-year old-man could be driving home alone at 1:00 in the morning from a night out in New Orleans, LA, and NOT be drunk?  This at least was how the deputy decided to view the situation.

Eventually, he decided to let me go home on the condition I leave my car in the Walgreens parking lot at Claiborne Hill.  I had to call a taxi, as both of my brothers and all of my friends within an hour's drive whom I was able to reach by phone were in fact intoxicated, and none of them was anywhere close to being in better shape to drive the car home by myself.

Sure, the cop could have been an even bigger dick.  He could have arrested me anyway, brought me to jail and booked me, only to release me shortly thereafter when results from breath and/or blood tests confirmed that I was in fact sober and free of any and all mood-altering chemicals.

The real irony in Louisiana's zero-tolerance DWI policies mandating twelve months of driver's license suspension for refusing to take a breathalyzer test is that police are under no such obligation to administer the test when doing so would confirm a driver's sobriety.

Throughout the course of the ordeal, I requested not less than three times that the officer administer a breathalyzer test.  All three times, he refused.  The third time I asked, he said that he was "doing me a favor" and that he "(did not) want to hear another word about it."  I interpreted this as his way of telling me that despite the fact that I was (and still am) 100% sober, he could arrest me anyway, and that if I wished to avoid such fate I should stop asking for a means of proving to him that I had not been drinking.

It seems to me that if Louisiana is going to have a law mandating the loss of driving privileges for an entire year for anyone who refuses a breathalyzer test, it would only be fair to grant the citizens the right to take a breathalyzer exam upon the citizen's request if the officer administering the traffic stop suspects the driver of driving while intoxicated.

Field sobriety tests are subjective, often convoluted and frequently require gymnastics that simply cannot be performed while wearing certain types of shoes.  Some are extremely difficult to perform regardless of whether or not a person is sober.  A citizens' right to a breathalyzer exam solves this problem by requiring the officer to administer a test which would quantifiably confirm or remove all suspicions as to a driver's prospective sobriety should the driver request the exam.  If citizens cannot refuse the test without consequences, than law-abiding drivers who have not been drinking should have the right to a test if an officer suspects he or she has been drinking.

What is good for the goose is good for the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff's Office.  While I fully support tough laws aimed at getting drunk drivers off the road, such laws must be a two-way street.  If the test can be required of the driver when it could potentially lead to self-incrimination, it should be required of the officer in circumstances when the driver is indeed sober and willing and able to prove it.

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