“People don’t realize how little it takes to become illegally intoxicated,” Capt. Michael Sarlo of the East Hampton Town police said during a recent interview, in which he was joined by Chief Edward V. Ecker Jr.
“Thirty years ago, it was .15,” the chief said of the level of alcohol in the blood that triggers a drunken-driving arrest. “Then it became .10. Now it is .08.”
Depending on weight and body chemistry, Captain Sarlo said, someone might reach the .08 level with as few as two or three beers.
Both men said they had noticed a drop in the number of arrests of drivers with high blood alcohol content from 10 or 15 years ago. “Back then, it wasn’t unusual to see .28. Now, I’d say those numbers are rare,” the captain said.
What most concerns police is the high number of drivers on local roads with blood-alcohol levels that, though lower, are still dangerous. Because of this, the town police, together with the East Hampton and Sag Harbor Village forces and all other East End police departments, have joined in an effort to step up arrests for driving while intoxicated, in targeted areas.
According to Captain Sarlo, bringing in extra police allows a town like East Hampton, with limited local resources, to increase enforcement greatly. When an officer makes a D.W.I. arrest, he explained, he or she must stay with the driver until either an in-house breath or blood test is given, or the accused refuses three times to take the test.
This is because courts require an unbroken chain of custody, starting with the arresting officer and continuing until the arrest becomes official. Because a D.W.I. charge is based on personal observation, the arresting officer is required to remain with the driver, documenting everything that happens, until the arrest process is completed.
If an accident is involved and the drunken driver requires hospitalization, the officer must stay with him or her until a blood test can be given. Frequently the officer will be helicoptered to the hospital along with the injured driver, to keep the chain of custody going.
On top of all that, detailed paperwork is necessary in each case. Not surprisingly, an officer making a drunken-driving arrest can be lost to the force for hours at a time.
By combining forces, police can target specific areas for large numbers of arrests without depleting the local force, which needs to be able to respond to emergency calls.
The first town to host the task force was Southampton, on Memorial Day weekend.
“We had 15 overall officers,” Chief William Wilson said on Tuesday, resulting in 15 arrests for drunken driving.
“What we did,” he said, “was a combination of checkpoint and saturation enforcement. We had a total of 148 car stops. About 10 percent of those stops resulted in arrests,” a percentage, he said, that alarms him.
“I’ve seen horrific accidents at lower levels of B.A.C.,” the chief said.
“We take [the joint operation] very seriously,” Captain Sarlo said of the high number of arrests coming out of it in Southampton. “We believe that it cuts down on our accidents and on our fatalities.”
For drivers, he said, a D.W.I. charge “is a life-changing experience. Your liberty is being taken away. You have to hire an attorney. It costs thousands of dollars.”
Most people, Captain Sarlo said, do not realize how easy it is to be stopped on suspicion of drunken driving. A motorist can be pulled over after crossing the yellow dividing lines. One telltale sign that is rarely mentioned in the police reports, he said, is the failure to adjust high beams at night for oncoming traffic.
A stop can also begin with a burnt-out brake light or taillight, with the inebriated driver unaware of the burnout.
An officer evaluates a motorist’s sobriety within the first few seconds of contact after making a traffic stop. The classic symptoms of intoxication that appear in all D.W.I. arrest reports are slurred speech, the smell of alcohol on the breath or body, bloodshot or bleary eyes, and a lack of coordination.
If for any reason an officer suspects a driver of being intoxicated, he or she is required to have the driver step out of the car and perform roadside sobriety tests. First, said the captain, comes the seven-step test. The driver must walk a straight line for seven steps, heel to toe. At the end of the seven steps, the driver must pivot and repeat the process in the opposite direction. All this must be done without using the arms for balance.
The next test is raising one foot in the air while slowly counting to 30, again with arms at the side.
Both police chiefs and the captain consider the final field test the most definitive. The driver is required to follow a pen or flashlight held in front of his face as the officer moves it back and forth, moving the eyes only, never the head. According to Captain Sarlo, an experienced officer can usually predict the driver’s blood-alcohol content within .01 just from watching his eye movements.
At this point the driver is given a preliminary breath test. Refusal to participate is not an option; it results in an immediate arrest for D.W.I.
If the driver has failed the breath test, he or she will be searched, arrested, handcuffed, placed in the back of a patrol car, and taken to police headquarters, where either a breath test or a blood test, depending on the circumstances, will be administered. The breath test, or Intoxilyzer 5000, uses infrared spectrum analysis of the breath and is far more accurate than the test given by the roadside.
Those who decline to take the breath test are given two more chances over approximately 45 minutes. Each refusal is documented. The third refusal results in automatic arrest and suspension of all driving privileges.
In certain circumstances, a blood test is a given. If a minor is in the car when a driver is arrested, the case is automatically elevated to felony status, and a blood test is then required. Also, where police deem a driver to be intoxicated but a breath test shows a low amount of alcohol, a blood test can be used to detect other intoxicants such as drugs. Finally, blood tests are always given following bad accidents.
After being read their rights, drunken drivers will spend the next few hours in a cell at headquarters. Their possessions are taken away. They are allowed to make a phone call to either family or a lawyer. In the morning they will be taken into court, hands cuffed behind the back. Sometimes there will be a crying spouse or friend in the courtroom. Usually there is no one.
The only time the handcuffs are removed is when the accused is handed a pen to sign a document stating that he understands that he has lost the right to drive a car. The cuffs make a metallic clicking sound when they are removed.
The judge sets bail, taking into account the accused’s roots in the community and the severity of the allegations.
Tracy Stoloff, whose daughter, Ella, a senior at the Ross School, survived a head-on crash on Feb. 19 with an allegedly drunken driver who had passed out at the wheel, has little sympathy for those arrested.
“She is still going through physical therapy. It has taken her out of any kind of physical activity,” she said of her daughter, who was active in sports before the crash. “It has devastated my family for months.”
If anything, Ms. Stoloff thinks the system isn’t hard enough on drunken drivers. “I just learned that the driver [Renee Despins, a local real estate broker] is back on the road,” Ms. Stoloff said. “How can she be driving around?”
Many people who face a charge of D.W.I. “are not really afraid,” Ms. Stoloff said. “It’s just a matter of getting a good attorney. It’s just an inconvenience, if you’ve got money.”
The D.W.I. police sweeps will not be publicized. They will be sudden, and intense. The best way to avoid being arrested, said Captain Sarlo, is simple: “Don’t drink and drive.”