DRUNK DRIVING….HOW DRUNK IS DRUNK

DRUNK DRIVING….HOW DRUNK IS DRUNK ENOUGH?….Is it time for MADD to declare victory and disband? I don’t really have a strong opinion, although I suspect it’s true that blood alcohol levels of .08 are probably sufficient to keep dangerous drivers off the road. However, how about a brief counterpoint?

I served on a jury a few years ago in a drunk driving case. The defendent had a lawyer who was obviously very experienced (and very expensive) and who put on a very competent defense that boiled down to one thing: breath tests have a chance of being inaccurate, and therefore we should let his client go. To prove his point he grilled the police officers, brought in expert witnesses, and tried to question the integrity of the tech who administered the test.

Despite all this, the prosecution basically had an open and shut case: the guy was pulled over because he had been weaving between lanes, he was tested properly, and his BAC came out to 1.1, well above the legal limit of .08. He admitted on the stand that he had had five drinks, and that’s clearly enough to send your BAC above .08.

But it turned out the jury wasn’t convinced. When we went off to deliberate we immediately took a quick vote just to see where we stood, and I was shocked to find out that the initial vote was 10-2 for acquittal. The problem was that the guy’s blood alcohol level was 1.1, meaning he was drunk but he wasn’t sloppy drunk. What’s more, a lot of the jurors were impressed with the defense lawyer’s paid lapdog, who testified that breath tests could easily be off by .4 or .5, so it was possible that the defendent’s BAC was really no more than .7 or so.

To make a long story short, eventually we convicted him. But it took me and one other guy a day and a half to convince everyone else that acquittal would essentially mean that breath tests were unreliable and that nobody with a BAC under, say, 1.4 should ever be convicted.

So there’s one possible reason for lowering the legal BAC even further: because juries have a hard time convicting people of drunk driving unless they are well above the legal limit.

POSTSCRIPT: This story has a funny ending. After the trial was over we got to talk to the prosecutor a bit, and he told us that he had been nervous about the verdict because of two specific jurors who seemed like they might be partial to the defendent. One of them wore a USC class ring, which meant he might be an ex-frat boy, and the other seemed like a very conservative, poker-faced guy who would sympathize with the CEO defendent. The poker-faced guy was me, and the USC grad was the only other vote to convict in the initial tally. So not only did we vote to convict, we were the ones who eventually brought everyone else around. I guess jury selection in drunk driving cases is not quite the fine science that it is in John Grisham novels.

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