With summer, prom, graduation, and hot weekend nights approaching it is an appropriate time to consider the issue of alcohol impaired driving. I have heard some stupid and dangerous myths and misconceptions regarding impaired driving over the last 20-plus years I've been a prosecutor, defense lawyer, and judge. Today I want to address three of those myths.
The first myth is that "I'm not illegal if I'm under the legal limit." That is wrong. The law is against impaired driving. The legislature has established a legal limit of .08 grams of alcohol per measure of blood, breath, or urine. At or above that limit it is illegal to drive, period. However, most people are not aware that if someone is driving with an amount of alcohol half the legal limit that is relevant evidence the person is impaired. It is not necessary the test be at or above the legal limit for a person to be charged and convicted. It is more difficult to prove a case involving a test beneath the legal limit, but it is possible as long as the prosecutor shows what the person had to drink impaired their ability to drive a motor vehicle.
Also, it must be noted that many people are impaired at a level well below the legal limit. I have participated in a couple of controlled drinking sessions for law enforcement training. Some participants were surprised at how impaired they are while still "legal" to drive. People who don't drink heavily, often, or are younger are more likely to be impaired at a lower level. If you feel "buzzed" you are impaired.
Judge Greg Anderson
The second myth is that the penalties aren't very severe. This may be because first time misdemeanor DWI convictions rarely include executed jail time, unless there is a probation violation. Typically, in my courtroom jail time is stayed on condition the defendant complete an alcohol assessment, follow the recommendations of the assessment, pay about $600-$700 in fines and charges, do a MADD victim impact panel, not drink alcohol, and be subject to testing for a year. If this isn't considered severe, the collateral consequences (those that are not a result of the sentence itself) include losing insurance or at least getting a very steep rate increase, losing driving privileges, having a criminal record which has many negative consequences, and the loss (at least for quite a while) of job prospects involving having a good driving record. As with many misdemeanor level offenses, the worst thing that happens to people who are convicted isn't the sentence itself. It should be noted a criminal vehicular homicide carries a presumptive four year prison term.
The third is the idea that "Statistically, only a very few people who are driving drunk get stopped; I'll be OK." I think this happens because when that decision is made, judgment isn't going to be at its best. No one leaving a bar or party after drinking is thinking they will get arrested, wreck their car, or kill someone. Yet it happens all the time. Make plans ahead of time for getting home safely, because it is likely you won't be thinking clearly when it is time to make that decision.
I have never in my professional or personal life met anyone who regretted having a designated driver or calling for a ride. Unfortunately, I can guarantee I will meet at least several people in court this month who will wish they had made that decision.