Today's holiday tradition: DUI arrests

December 21, 2007

Today's holiday tradition: DUI arrests
Office parties may unleash novices onto roads
Friday,  December 21, 2007 3:10 AM
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With Christmas parties hitting their peak this weekend, are you more careful not to drink and drive?

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Police traditionally begin their crackdown on drunken drivers in the weeks leading up to Christmas, often finding impaired drivers at night, when bars are closing.


But last year, an analysis showed a spike in drunken-driving arrests the Friday before Christmas, beginning in the daylight hours.

So this year, officers will focus on today and Saturday, days when they say so-called "novice drinkers" are most likely to hit the roads after imbibing at office parties or sharing a cup of cheer with co-workers.

The inexperienced drinkers include young employees, perhaps at their first office holiday party, or older workers who usually don't drink much except for such occasions, police said.

"They may go out after work and have a few drinks with their friends and then get on the roads and drive," said Carl Booth, coordinator of the Franklin County DUI Task Force.

Booth analyzed countywide statistics last year and found arrests averaged three on a normal weekday between 4 p.m. and midnight but rose to nine the Friday before Christmas.

"They may even be under the legal limit, but in no condition to be driving," he said.

Drivers don't have to test at or above a 0.08 percent blood-alcohol level, at which state law considers them to be drunk, defense attorney Brad Koffel said.

Even at a level under 0.08 percent, Koffel will look at the dashboard video recording from the police cruiser and "We may see our clients look impaired."

These can be people who have never been in trouble before, Koffel said. "They don't make a habit out of drinking and driving. They're not looking to hang from the chandelier at midnight. But they have their guard down.

"They may have a couple of glasses of wine. And they're caught up in a more aggressive, zero-tolerance enforcement."

Prosecutors pursue DUI convictions without high-blood or -breath results all the time, Municipal Court Judge Carrie Glaeden said.

"In fact, I used to prefer the cases where there wasn't a test when I was a prosecutor," Glaeden said.

Judges and jurors generally "know it when you see it," she said of witness and police testimony. Also, defense attorneys have less of a chance to punch holes in changing technology used to administer blood-alcohol tests.

Reynoldsburg's 35 drunken-driving arrests last December, the highest of any Franklin County suburb, were likely because of greater police attention.

"It's kind of a culture within the department," Reynoldsburg Police Lt. Scott McKinley. "We do put a high emphasis on enforcing that law."

First-time offenders typically face a license suspension and fines of up to $1,000. If they refuse to take a costly three-day course on alcohol abuse, they can spend that time in jail.

Justin Sidhu learned the hard way that you don't have to hit .08 percent to be charged with drunken driving.

"You can go out, not be drunk, and still be pulled over, and the consequences are enormous," he said.

On Wednesday, Nov. 28, a Perry Township officer pulled him over for an expired license tag. Sidhu, 25, said he had been at a Dublin pub where he drank four beers over more than four hours.

"I felt fully in control," he said. However, Officer Mark Rice smelled alcohol on Sidhu's breath, conducted a field sobriety test -- which police said Sidhu failed -- and arrested him for drunken driving.

He was handcuffed and his car was impounded. His blood-alcohol came back at 0.061 percent, below the limit.

"You can go out and have a couple of drinks. If a cop honestly thinks you're impaired, he's going to go ahead and hit you with this," said Sidhu, who plans to fight the charge.

"I don't regret anything I did that night. I wasn't endangering anybody else. I wasn't impaired to drive the vehicle."

Still, he said, "It's not something that's very pleasant to have to go through."

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