Nov 9, 2010

Home on the range: How much have you had to drink tonight?

(Craig Meunier of North Anson takes an Intoxilyzer test, administered by
Deputy Matt Sharpe of Sagadahoc Sheriff's Office, prior to participating as a volunteer)

Police deal with hundreds upon thousands of drunk drivers each year. It’s not only one of the most frequent calls they respond to, it’s also something oft contested in court. This makes it imperative that the officers not only know what to look for when on an OUI stop, but also know how to properly articulate it in their reports.
(Cadets practice administering the FSTs to become comfortable with the instructions)

Everything from how they instruct the person during field sobriety tests, to how well the cadets themselves can perform on the tests when giving instructions can come into play in a court case.

The reason field sobriety tests became standardized, is because prior to that different officers had different methods for determining if someone was sober. Now, all law enforcement officers are administering the same tests.

“It makes it easier for the prosecution of cases,” explained Officer Robert Libby of the South Portland Police Department and Lead Instructor for the OUI SFSTs portion the range weeks. “Prosecutors, judges, defense attorneys – they all know what it [SFSTs] is and if it’s done properly.

On the day I was there, the cadets were reviewing videos of impaired people and watching for clues of impairment on various field sobriety tests.

The tests are:
Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN): where the officer uses a visual stimulus (a pen, or similar object) that the subject tracks with their eyes. Nystagmus is an involuntary, and slightly creepy, twitching of the eyeball which becomes pronounced when someone is intoxicated.

The walk and turn test: Pretty much what it sounds like. The cadet places the subject in the instruction position (one foot in front of the other, hands at her sides) and they have to take 9 steps, turn and take nine more in a straight line, heel-to-toe and counting out loud.
The one-leg-stand: This is also pretty self explanatory. The cadet instructs the student to lift one leg (whichever the subject is comfortable with) six inches off the ground and count by thousands (one thousand one, one thousand two, etc.) until instructed to stop.

The tests, with the exception of HGN, are designed to divide the subject’s attention. This is done because driving is a skill the depends on people being able to operate a large piece of deadly machinery using divided attention (gauging one’s speed, braking, watching for obstacles, etc.).

And it isn’t just the tests that the officers are concerned about, it’s the totality of the circumstances – how was the vehicle being operated (swerving, wide turns, rolled stops, etc.), was there a smell of alcohol (or intoxicating beverages, rather); was the subject’s speech slurred; could he answer questions and retrieve his license; and so on.

In order to help the cadets become comfortable not only with administering the tests but being able to experience what it’s like to deal with an impaired person, The Maine Criminal Justice Acaemy employs the National Highway Safety Administration’s nationally certified training, which includes having the cadets evaluate volunteers who have been carefully monitored and dosed with alcohol.

“[For some cadets] this is they only opportunity they will have to correctly evaluate an impaired person,” said James Lyman the training coordinator for MCJA. “It’s a valuable tool for them.”

Lyman said that the cadets can watch videos of HGN, and practice administering field sobriety tests on sober subjects, but nothing beats working with a real subject who is impaired. They can see HGN in a real person, observe clues during tests, and see how it stacks up with the subject’s actual level of impairment.

The entire process is overseen by several law enforcement officers. There is an EMT on hand that takes the blood pressure and evaluates each of the volunteers before any alcohol is administered. The subjects are all given an Intoxilyzer beforehand to ensure they had no alcohol in the system.

(Nicole Prescott of Unity, an Intermediate EMT takes Jake Hall's blood pressure)

The goal is to get the volunteers between 0.08 to 0.12 percent, though in this case no one was above a 0.09 percent at any time. Throughout the evening, the volunteers were given additional breathalyzer tests to track their level of intoxication.

“It’s pretty controlled and we take it very seriously,” said Lyman.

The volunteers have to have arrangements for travel (i.e. have a designated driver), and are not allowed to leave the premises until their blood alcohol level is .04 percent. And they also have to agree to stay home and not consume any more alcohol for the rest of the evening. If any of the volunteers decide they aren’t comfortable or don’t feel well, they can stop at any time (though this didn’t come up).

After this course the cadets have to evaluate 10 intoxicated individuals with 80 percent with chemcical confirmation (i.e. an Intoxilyzer test)accuracy to be considered qualified.

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