Under the influence
La Verne Police Department enforces a no-nonsense crackdown on drunk driving
by Rachel Gonzales
photography by Warren Bessant
“So do you think he came to a complete stop?” “No,” asks and answers Officer Robert Nishimura. Nishimura quickly reaches to his center console to turn on his lights and sirens. I am on a ride along, researching a story. My heart is pounding, and my hands are shaking as I sit shotgun on a possible driving under the influence stop.
It is Thursday, Oct. 28, approximately 11:30 p.m.; a gray Chevy truck has just whipped out of T Phillips street parking on D Street. The U turn was bold and attention catching. Unfortunately for the driver, the last moment of the power U turn caught the attention of one of La Verne’s veteran officers traveling eastbound on Bonita Avenue. He sees just a flash of lights but knows that the individual is leaving a drinking establishment. Unfortunately for the driver, officer Nishimura, a 11-year-reserve veteran of the La Verne Police Department is the top officer for DUI arrests. He immediately transforms into veteran officer mode and talks me through the legalities of the possible stop. We are waiting for one more wrong move, since he did not see the complete U turn infraction. “Now that he knows I’m behind him, he’s going to try to drive perfect,” the officer says. We are on him, a car length behind on D Street, going first past Roynon Elementary School, now Bonita High School. There is a bit of swaying, but Nishimura says it does not warrant pulling him over. The decisive moment comes at Foothill Boulevard when the driver rolls through a red light making a right turn. Nishimura remarks that not stopping before the crosswalk gives him cause to pull the vehicle over.
There is no chase. The driver, now in a left turn lane, surrenders to the red and blue lights. We pull into a shopping center, and fellow back up La Verne officers appear like ghosts out of the night. It is important to have back up when there is a passenger in the car.
The officers all step out of their vehicles into the crisp cold night air. I shiver a bit as I stand outside the police vehicle about to witness the reality of a field sobriety test. The spotlight on the car makes it seem like the sun is out. Officer Nishimura approaches the vehicle and quickly tells the driver he did not stop before the crosswalk. Then, his personable first question is, “Have you been drinking this evening?” The driver freely admits to drinking one beer at T Philips. “So just one beer,” casually says Nishimura as his hand spotlight shines in the driver’s eyes. The driver volunteers, “It was a big beer,” and he shows the large size with his hands. Now, Nishimura makes the request that the driver step out of the vehicle for a field sobriety test. When taking tests at the University of La Verne, I fear the dreaded “F,” but if this driver fails, he could lose a word that also starts with “f”: freedom. The driver steps out of his vehicle; he is a normal guy, your next-door neighbor or a buddy you watch football with on Sundays. The test begins, and Officer Nishimura instructs the driver to tilt his head back and count to 30 in his head. The wobbles take over. The officer knowingly looks over at me, and we both watch the driver struggle to maintain his balance for 30 seconds. Next, he lifts one leg off the ground and counts to 10. The wobbles again take over, and the driver is failing miserably.
The field sobriety test is a standard set of questions and physical tests that officers use to gauge whether an individual is impaired. They follow a standard two-page procedure form that is conducted the same with each driver at both rolling stops and checkpoints. The final portion of the sobriety test is the Breathalyzer, a device that estimates the blood alcohol content (BAC) from a breath sample. This is the most important test to pass, for if the driver blows .08 BAC or above, he is legally intoxicated. Officer Nishimura tells the driver to breathe into the machine until told to stop. There is drama in this moment; I just know he is going to fail, and I feel sorry for him. He seems like a nice guy; however, I know he should not be driving while intoxicated. I watch the driver place his lips on the breathalyzer and exhale. Nishimura looks at the reading on the machine and then requests the driver to blow one more time.
I observe the final reading; the driver was over the legal limit. He blew a .10 BAC the first time, .11 the second. Cold reality sets in. Nishimura turns to the driver and begins to read him his rights. He places the cold steel handcuffs around the driver’s wrists and directs him to take a seat in the back of the police car. The driver was later identified as a teacher and a father. He has never been arrested before. But an entertaining evening with his cousin turned into a huge mistake. For Officer Nishimura, he has just removed another driver from La Verne’s streets who could have hurt someone or even himself. The backup officers offer a ride to the cousin; he accepts. Nishimura says he will not tow the truck; a relative can pick it up in the morning. He also says he will do his best to get the driver out of jail in time for work in the morning.
Officer Nishimura is La Verne’s expert for making DUI arrests. “No one thing says I’m drunk,” he says. For the past three years, Nishimura has taken about 111 drunk drivers off the La Verne street—about 37 DUI arrests a year. In 2010, La Verne Police arrested 76 drunk drivers, with Nishimura holding 34 percent of those arrests—and he only works on Thursday nights. In all, from 2008 to 2010, La Verne’s officers have arrested 293 drunk drivers, with Nishimura’s share being 27.5 percent. According to Ruth Mahlow, records supervisor, La Verne Police have worked 64 drunk driving related collisions over the past three years and one drunk driving fatality in 2010.
Nishimura notes that it is not just alcohol that can lead to a DUI arrest. Prescription medications, marijuana or recreational drugs lead to arrest as well. Sadly, air canisters used to clean computers, can cause people to become impaired while driving. Officers are trained to recognize DUI behavior even when there is no presence of alcohol. The DUI consequences are steep: Drivers under the age of 21 face a “no tolerance” policy, with a one-year license suspension.
Sometimes there is a presence of alcohol, but it does not merit a .08 BAC reading. For example, under California law, a reading below .08 can be cause to cite a driver for DUI if the officer determines that the driver is too intoxicated to drive safely. A driver can then plead to a lesser charger of “wet and reckless” during the court process. There are some advantages and disadvantages to the lesser charge of “wet and reckless.” With this plea, there are no mandatory alcohol education classes, and more than likely one’s driver’s license will not be suspended as long as there is a successful DMV hearing. For professionals like doctors, lawyers and real estate agents (those who report to professional boards), this is a lesser charge that does not negatively affect their license. But there are some disadvantages too. A driver still faces fines, and the charge stays on records for 10 years. And if an individual is arrested within that period for a DUI after a “wet and reckless” plea, the prosecutor can use that as a prior drunk driving conviction. Also, more than likely, insurance rates will increase because companies view a “wet and reckless” as a DUI.
Not all of Officer Nishimura’s stops end in citations or arrests. On this Thursday night, approximately 12 people were pulled over without citations being issued. Some, like the 20 year old in the jacked up Chevy truck we stopped for not signaling properly. With the vehicle’s height, Nishimura was unable to visually determine whether the driver had possibly been drinking. The 20-year old driver said he had not. A series of questions brought unclear answers; the driver did admit to being nervous. Nishimura administered a breathalizer test. No alcohol was detected, and the officer told the driver to have a safe night and to remember to signal when turning or making a lane change.
Rolling patrol officers specifically observe and question possible DUI drivers. The need is life and death. In January 2010, Alan McConnell, 27, was driving two women home from a night out and struck a vehicle near Foothill Boulevard and Damien Avenue in La Verne. He tried to flee the scene, lost control, jumped the curb, overcorrected and hit dead center a tree in the road median. One of the women died on scene; the other was rushed to the hospital where she later died. The two women were in their early 20s and college students. McConnell was found to be intoxicated and was charged with murder, felony driving under the influence, and hit and run.
Checkpoints and partnerships
Fueled by grant money, the La Verne Police Department hosts about 12 checkpoints a year at random locations. Lieutenant Tom Toth, a 23-year veteran, oversees the traffic division that concentrates on providing the city’s checkpoints and rolling patrols. Toth says La Verne teams up with other local law enforcement agencies, like the Los Angeles County DUI Task Force, to host checkpoints. La Verne is part of the California Avoid Anti-DUI Program, launched in 1973 to crackdown on drunk drivers. California Avoid currently has more than 540 law enforcement agencies.
According to the Department of Traffic and Safety, in 2009 California’s DUI arrests were up 5.4 percent. The additional arrests may have led to the statewide 7.6 decrease in the number of alcohol impaired driving fatalities. Many of the efforts to fight drunk driving are possible due to grant funds from the Department of Traffic and Safety. With the funds in place, Toth’s team continues the city’s commitment to arrest anyone driving under the influence.
For first time offenders, there is no such thing as a “slap on the wrist.” They face up to six months in jail, fines up to $1,000 and possible suspension of their driver’s license for six months, plus a mandatory three-month driving under the influence program, insurance restrictions and possible installation of an ignition interlock device. Hire a lawyer, and the legal fees could hit $3,500 on top of the fines and court fees. The sticker price on the infraction could be $10,000 plus associated problems with employers, family and self-dignity. When drivers are arrested for a second, third or even fourth offense, the penalties become rigid. These drivers face mandatory jail time, driver license suspension and thousands of dollars in fines, court fees, insurance rate hikes and possibly attorney fees. The laws regarding drunk driving are unforgiving. Too many people have been injured or killed due to drunk drivers, so organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD) have lobbied for strict state policies on drunk driving offenses.
Attorney Steven C. Rivas from Tomlinson, Prince, Cullen & Leahy, LLP in Ontario, says it is important to consult an attorney after a DUI arrest. “You want to know your options and possible lesser charges that can be pleaded to,” Rivas says. “Prosecutors are adamant about prosecuting drunk drivers to the best of their abilities, so having someone on your side who knows the law is crucial.”
Toth says the La Verne Police Department must continue to educate the community about the harmful effects of driving under the influence. He notes that the police department has the support of the La Verne City Council, and that the checkpoints and rolling patrols are helping to keep the city safe. “People must designate a driver, know their limits and not let others drive when they have had too much to drink,” Toth says. Ignore that sage advice, and the possibility of an uncomfortable meeting with La Verne’s finest may be in your future.