FEATURE: BUZZ-TED

By on February 24, 2015
The aftermath from a crash on Ski Hill Road that resulted in serious injuries to the passengers of the vehicles. Both drivers were found/plead guilty to DUI. (Photo credit: Teton County Sheriff’s Office)

The aftermath from a crash on Ski Hill Road that resulted in serious injuries to the passengers of the vehicles. Both drivers were found/plead guilty to DUI. (Photo credit: Teton County Sheriff’s Office)

State and local attitudes toward DUI have sobered considerably in last decade.

Jackson Hole, Wyoming – Laughter boomed through the hall as a baffled Representative Keith Gingery stood at the podium. It was February 2005 and the now-former legislator’s remarks about one of the first DUI reforms he proposed to the Wyoming Legislature had reduced his colleagues to a band of laughing hyenas.

In response to Gingery’s comments, a Wyoming legislator quipped: “Who here hasn’t driven drunk every once in awhile? How else are you going to get home?”

The Cowboy State has long taken a nonchalant approach to drinking and driving, until recently. In 1988, Wyoming was the last state to change its legal drinking age from 19 to 21, four years after the federal government enacted a nationwide law mandating the new drinking age.

Until 2002, the legal blood alcohol content level in Wyoming was .10 percent, a few notches above the national limit of .08 percent. Even as recently as 2007, Wyoming did not have a law forbidding open containers, a.k.a. Wyoming road sodas, in motorized vehicles. But attitudes here are shifting and buzzed drivers are witnessing this firsthand.

Former State Representative Keith Gingery

Former State Representative Keith Gingery

Spirited statistics

Arrests related to DUIs by Jackson Hole Police Department rose from 90 in 2010 to 128 in 2014, a 42 percent increase.

However, local law enforcement cites reasons such as staffing for a rise in arrests. “When we are fully staffed, we have more officers on the street, thus more opportunity for arrests,” noted JHPD Lieutenant Cole Nethercott. “When we have lower staffing levels our officers end up handling more calls and writing more reports per officer than when we are fully staffed so they have less time to be on patrol looking for DUIs. I think that contributes to a lot of how the numbers shake out each year.”

According to Nethercott, Jackson also has high public intoxication and driving under the influence numbers because of its demographics. “I think that with the area being a resort area, many people come [here] and they enjoy themselves at bars in ways they may not at home,” he said. “We also have a large number of seasonal employees who tend to be younger and single and could be considered generally as more of a party crowd.”

In the 10 years since Gingery was ridiculed for pushing for change there has been a major overhaul of legal proceedings concerning driving under the influence. While still a Wyoming state legislator, Gingery helped extend “Lookback Periods” from five years to 10 years. A Lookback Period is the amount of time prior DUIs are relevant for sentencing. Legislators were also able to amend the language of the previous law to prevent lawyers from delaying court dates long enough to render a Lookback Period irrelevant.

The Two Hour Rule also was adopted. It was a legislative breakthrough that enabled prosecutors to do away with a convoluted mathematical process to determine blood alcohol content that enabled many defense attorneys to find legal loopholes in the defendant’s timeline of sobriety.

Gingery also helped implement the controversial oral and electronic search warrant law that grants law enforcement officers the ability to obtain a warrant electronically, allowing them access to timely tests for blood alcohol content.

“It was controversial because it was new. People were worried that somehow the standard would be less, because the standard had changed,” Gingery said. “That maybe the judges wouldn’t be putting it under the same scrutiny they put [traditional] warrants under, but you hardly ever hear that anymore. Minds have been eased since people have seen that judges take is so seriously.”

While Gingery says he is proud of the progress Wyoming has made, he knows there is a long road ahead. “It takes awhile to change attitudes and perceptions. It seems to go in waves,” he said. “Someone will die in a drunk driving crash and then the community wants action. But then people forget and they urge law enforcement to not be so tough on drunk drivers and then someone dies again, and the community demands action.”

Your brain on booze

According to Dr. Joshua D. Clapp, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Wyoming, leading issues of concern while driving under the influence are overconfidence in ability, underestimation of impairment and impulse control. The National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that “alcohol interferes with the brain’s communication pathways. These disruptions can change mood and behavior, and make it harder to think clearly and move with coordination.”

Dr. Charles J. Ksir, a professor of psychology at University of Wyoming, condensed numerous studies that may explain a person’s propensity to drive while under the influence of alcohol. “Several studies have found that as blood alcohol increases there is more of a focus on the immediate situation and less on things that might happen in the future. This effect has been referred to as ‘alcohol myopia’ or nearsightedness, with the ‘near’ referring less to distance than to time. I’m not much for ‘neurologizing,’ but we have known for a long time that the frontal lobes are affected [by alcohol] sooner than some other parts of the brain, and the frontal lobes are important for planning and carrying out sequential tasks,” Ksir explained.

In other words, someone whose frontal lobes have been compromised due to the influence of alcohol, Ksir’s study maintains, might lose sight of long-term consequences. A present-focused mind pays little regard to potential consequences, no matter how well an individual understands them, and immediate fears (like getting yourself and your vehicle home) become of paramount importance.

Briefly behind the wheel

What Ksir refers to as “alcohol myopia” may be what inclined Julie*, 36, to move her car one Thursday evening. After indulging in two cocktails at a local haunt, she wanted to continue drinking. Because she couldn’t leave her vehicle parked on Town Square overnight, she went to move it to the parking garage.

Before Julie put her vehicle in gear, however, a police officer, lights flashing, pulled up behind her. With her key in the ignition, she was potentially culpable for driving under the influence. Julie voluntarily blew into the Breathalyzer, but it would not take her reading. After that, she passed a myriad of field sobriety tests. But because the Breathalyzer test was inconclusive, she was held until her urine test came back, with the results being a necessary component in factoring bail.

“I spent three nights in jail because the judge isn’t available on the weekends, and no one knew where I was: not my boss, not my roommates, not my dog. Not anyone,” she said. “Three nights in jail and no one knew. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a jail cell, but you don’t even want to use the bathroom in there.”

Her urine test came back with a blood alcohol level of .08, the percentage Wyoming state law classifies as too intoxicated to operate a motor vehicle. After posting her $1,000 bail, the real difficulties ensued. After hearings, classes, assessments, and lawyer’s fees, Julie estimates she racked up $7,000 in expenses.

But monetary fees were not the worst penalty she faced. Julie’s boss at the time was able to pull her police blotter, which he posted by the company time clock with the caption, “Sorry we’re short staffed today, this is what happened to your co-worker, please let her know that drinking and driving is not a good idea.”

In an attempt to put the whole situation behind her, she opted to plea for an expungement, which the court granted after hefty legal fees. However, the DUI still comes up on background checks, leaving her wondering why the statute of forgiveness exists in the first place if there is no forgiveness to be had.

“I guess in a way I’m still being punished for it, because I really thought it was off my record and it’s not. That DUI will be attached to me for the rest of my life,” she said. “So I guess that’s it: if someone else can learn from my mistake, even just two cocktails moving your car, they’ll get you, and it’ll cost you.”

Almost made it home safely

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, drivers with a BAC of .08 percent or higher involved in fatal crashes were seven times more likely to have a prior conviction for DUI than were drivers with no alcohol in their system. Wyoming now views second offenses like Andy’s* very seriously.

Late one night after drinking with friends, Andy, 36, pulled into his driveway. A police officer stopped him at his vehicle as he exited the car. His decision to drive drunk would result in his second DUI.

After a field sobriety test, Andy blew a .16 BAC and was taken downtown. “Even though I’d made it home safely, they still took me downtown. They put me in the holding cell for the night. It’s ridiculously hot in there,” he said. “You’re just laying on straight plastic mattresses with the lights on the whole time. The water didn’t have enough pressure to trickle out over the edge of the spout, so you’re there with your 1.5-ounce Dixie cup trying to get water that tasted awful and warm, and you never have any idea what time it is.”

Andy is currently in legal proceedings. Should he be convicted, jail time, license suspension, and an ignition interlock device are mandatory consequences for a second offense. Until his court date, he also has morning and evening Preliminary Breath Tests.

Even using Listerine mouthwash before a PBT can cause a positive-for-alcohol reading, Andy explained, and if he fails to blow a clean Breathalyzer test, he may be sent to jail immediately for being in violation of his release terms.

“I don’t go out and drink a lot anymore, which has actually saved me a lot of money,” Andy admitted. “Now I ride my bike everywhere, which has been good for me, or I take the bus, which is good for the town and the environment. It’s not fun. I mean, it’s not something you want to go out and do, but it’s made me reevaluate a lot of things.”

No recourse

Late one night Katy*, age 29, was getting up to speed on a stretch of Highway 22 she referred to as “The Gauntlet,” known for its heavy law enforcement patrol.

An officer was waiting, clocking passing vehicle speeds. Katy was pulled over for driving over the speed limit. She was given a Breathalyzer test as well as a field sobriety test. Katy said the officer who administered her field sobriety test told her he knew what her blood alcohol content would be before she even used the Breathalyzer. Katy believed she passed the sobriety test with flying colors; however, her Breathalyzer came back with a reading of .086.

After her blood alcohol content test came back above the legal limit, Katy also was placed in a holding cell until a judge provided terms for her release. Her charges, however, were eventually dropped. Katy says her time in jail was a formative experience.

“It was terrifying. I’m kind of claustrophobic and get panic attacks,” she said. “I don’t fly on planes, I’m even scared of getting stuck in someone else’s car, and I was totally coherent. I wasn’t even drunk. I got in. I was in this cell by myself, and I was so scared, I just wanted someone to talk to, and when I get panic attacks it feels like things aren’t quite real. I didn’t know if it was a dream, and I just started banging on the door screaming, ‘Somebody help me! Somebody let me out of here!’”

Katy’s DUI left at least one unexpected impact. “Now I’m terrified to drive past there, because if they want to find a reason to put you in jail, they’ll find it,” she said. “When they put you in that holding cell, they’re holding you on suspicion. You could get thrown in there for anything, and they [legally have the right to] hold you, and you have no recourse. You’re just in jail.”

What about the victims?

While DUIs result in a host of life-changing consequences, the first three people profiled were somewhat fortunate in that they did not harm themselves or another person while driving drunk.

But Walter*, 27, at the time of his incident in 1983, was not so lucky. He was headed on a backpacking trip with his best friend Michael*, but due to bad weather, instead they decided to have a few drinks in town. A few drinks turned into a few too many, and on the way home Walter flipped his collector’s edition 1972 Monte Carlo off an overpass, landing upside down on railroad tracks. Walter initially was pronounced dead on the scene and Michael, who fell into a coma, was life-flighted to Casper.

While the hospital kept Walter on life support for three hours searching for his next of kin, he miraculously came to. The doctors were able to take him off life support. “As early as two weeks later it would be difficult to tell that anything had happened to me even though I was legally dead for three hours,” Walter said.

While Walter walked away from the accident, Michael was left in a coma for 18 days and woke up with a mangled leg that would leave him disabled for life.

Walter lost his job after being in the hospital for three days and had to pay for a car replacement, higher insurance costs, and for the repairs to the overpass and railroad tracks, but he spent no time in jail. The extent of his legal repercussions was a 90-day license suspension and a fine of $600.

“For that day and age, even those consequences were considered pretty severe,” he said. “I’d been drinking and driving for a lot of years, and if that incident had been a simple DUI, I probably just would have been taken home. I mean, in the 70s, the cops would lock up the car and take me home, maybe even make sure I got to bed.” Walter continued, “I think the consequences today would have been completely different. There was major property damage and major bodily injury. I’d be pretty upset today if my consequences were the extent of the consequences I faced for the same incident. We’ve come a long way.”

Teton County Sheriff Jim Whalen has been an officer of the law for the past 25 years, and he is proud of the way local opinion has shifted during his tenure in law enforcement. When he first began, Whalen said Jackson was a much smaller, rural town with a forgiving attitude toward driving under the influence.

“I was a young officer back then, and the chief of police [Dick Hayes] wanted us to step up our enforcement. There was a different philosophical take on the situation back then,” Whalen said. “It was looked at as not being a very serious crime, and that has certainly evolved to what it is today. I’m very proud of our community that has rallied behind the officers and deputies of the county. This is a crime that really hurts the community, and I think people have, more and more, started to see that. I am very proud to have been able to take part in that change.”

Teton County Sheriff Jim Whalen

Teton County Sheriff Jim Whalen

From scot free to jail time

Compared to the lax treatment of Walter in 1983, a similar present-day occurrence in Casper, Wyoming, is projected to have entirely different consequences. Kevin Gemkow is accused of driving under the influence resulting in serious bodily injury. He and his passenger, Brian Kyle Bawdon, were both in intensive care for several weeks after a car crash in 2013. According to the Casper Star Tribune, Gemkow, while under the influence of alcohol, with traces of cannabinoids and benzodiazepines in his blood, lost control of his vehicle, crashing it in a ditch on Highway 20/26. If convicted, Gemkow could face up to 10 years in prison and a fine of no less than $2,000 and no greater than $5,000.

In comparison with the casual attitudes of Wyomingites in the 70s and 80s, statewide opinions on driving under the influence are evolving. According to the Wyoming Department of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police Executive Alcohol and Crime Report, “79.7 percent view alcohol abuse by Wyoming adults as a serious or somewhat serious problem, and 84.5 percent of Wyoming residents believe that drinking and driving in their community is a serious or somewhat serious problem.”

Although attitudes may be transforming in Wyoming, some argue that recent crash statistics reflect the need for more education and awareness efforts. Wyoming Department of Transportation Analyst Thomas Carpenter reports that while Wyoming experienced a record-low year concerning fatal crashes due to driving under the influence in 2013, the numbers nearly doubled in 2014. Last year alone there were 131 fatal crashes in Wyoming resulting in 150 fatalities. In 2009, Forbes Magazine reported that Wyoming is still one of the top five worst states in the union for fatalities due to driving under the influence.

While Wyoming residents take pride in self-regulation and independence, recent laws are trending in favor of safety for the masses in conjunction with public demand and opinion.

*This person has requested that his or her name be changed.

Comments

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About Natosha Hoduski

One Comment

  1. pete

    February 26, 2015 at 7:56 am

    It’s just a matter of time before they start locking you up for using a cell phone while driving.

    If you really want to slow the driving and drinking problem, you need to start making booze much more expensive. Ten dollars per drink at the bar will have people switching to something cheaper. As it stands, we give away liquor licenses and then spend millions to clean up the mess booze causes.

    Ironically, the state gets rich off of booze sales. It runs the distribution center for everything except beer and taxes the point of sale.

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