Three weeks ago, former Mammoth resident Chris Francis won his case in the People v Chris Francis, successfully overturning his arrest for DUI. The Sheet was curious to see if other Mammoth residents had experienced contestable stops or arrests on suspicion of DUI, and while six residents stepped forward to respond to the survey in last week’s paper (see “Locals recount their experiences getting pulled over on suspicion of DUI”), many others offered their stories off the record, citing anything from broken license plate lights to missing mud flaps as excuses for what they felt were DUI fishing trips by the MLPD. Mammoth may have a drinking and driving problem, considering the nightlife and the age bracket of its seasonal residents, but, as some of these residents wondered, when does a routine safety check turn into unfair harassment?
MLPD Chief Dan Watson clarified the circumstances under which a police officer can pull over a suspected drunk driver. There must be some kind of traffic violation, he said. “A police officer, whether it’s for a DUI investigation or anything else, can’t stop a car without reasonable cause.” Police look for specific signs, Watson explained, like a driver running a red light, driving with no headlights on, or weaving in the lane. Even a routine traffic stop for a broken taillight can warrant a sobriety test if the officer approaches the driver and observes objective symptoms like alcoholic breath and bloodshot, watery eyes, slurred speech, or other symptoms.
However, Francis argued in his case that his own apparently telltale wide turn from Main Street to Minaret was in fact the result of traffic cones blocking part of the lane. Grainy video footage from the patrol car could neither prove or disprove this claim (see “Local DUI case questions police practices”). Furthermore, in spite of the subsequent finding by two breath tests that Francis’ blood level was at .20 and .19, Francis’ lawyer Dan Bartell noted not only the potential failings of the breath test device itself, but also the failure by Officer Dan Hansen to provide Francis with the opportunity for a blood test that might have exonerated him.
When asked about this point, Watson responded, “Apparently [Hansen offering Francis the blood test] wasn’t recorded. So it’s his word against the officer’s.”
Asked whether Bartell’s use of a breath test device expert to question the validity of the breath test device used in the case (an Alcotest 7410+, certified for police use in California for the past decade or more) might mean a change in technology for the MLPD, Watson indicated no. “The fact that one individual got a not guilty verdict doesn’t mean we’re going to change the procedures or the laws or anything else,” he said.
Bartell’s challenge to the breathalyzer test joins a growing list in other states like Texas, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Florida. In various cases in these states, defense attorneys have argued that factors like whether or not the breath test device was properly calibrated, whether the mouthpiece was changed between breaths, and how hard an officer asked a suspect to blow into the device, could all negatively effect the results of the test.
Here in California, in 2011 the Ventura District Attorney’s Office began reviewing approximately 300 DUI cases because of problems with the hand-held Alco-Sensor V breath testing device. Their reason for review: a potential problem with the breath testing machine’s mouthpiece that was causing erratic readings. Whether or not any similar issues arise with the Alcotest 7410+ remains to be seen.
But, in spite of recent speculation that the MLPD is becoming more aggressive toward drunk driving, Chief Watson did note that the number of DUI arrests has actually gone down this year. “I got a complaint that we were stepping up our DUI enforcement,” he said, “and I wish we did; I am very much an advocate of a strong stance on DUI drivers. But we looked at the data for 2010, 2011, and 2012 to date, and while all 3 agencies [MLPD, Mono County Sheriff, and Mono County CHP] had an increase in DUI arrests in 2011, at the pace we’re going we’ll be back to 2010 levels this year.”
Numbers provided by the MLPD confirm this, with 65 DUI arrests in 2010, 71 in 2011, and 36 in the 9 months of 2012 (Mono County Sheriff’s Department had 20, 18, and 13 DUI arrests respectively in those years, while the Mono County CHP had 74, 101, and 68).
Some other, more sobering numbers: in 2010, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data, 10,228 people died in the U.S. in drunk driving crashes, while around 345,000 were injured. Every day in the U.S. another 28 people die of drunk driving crashes, and 1 in 3 people will be involved in a drunk driving crash in their lifetime.
So, in spite of a trial that called into question not only police protocol but also standardized breath test devices, Mammoth residents can expect the same traffic stops and same DUI procedures as before. As Watson argued, the MLPD is hard on drunk drivers for a reason. “All you have to do is be touched by a DUI driver, and lots of us who’ve been around for a while have. Police officers see the results of DUI drivers and traffic accidents all the time. I can speak from personal experience: my ex-daughter in law and granddaughter were both nearly killed in an accident by a guy on probation for DUI.
“If someone is pulled over and suspected of DUI and they’re not, they were pulled over for some traffic violation. And for the individual who’s arrested for DUI, I don’t feel sorry for them. They shouldn’t drink to excess and then get behind the wheel.”