Drinking and driving consequences: A local, DWI story and its steep toll

police photoBy SARAH DOOLITTLE, Four Points News

Clara had no intention of drunk driving the night she was arrested for driving while intoxicated.

That night, she had plans with friends. Her son was out of town for the weekend and she was going to a tailgate party. By the time she arrived at the event, though, there was no food left. Clara, which isn’t her real name, stayed long enough to socialize and have a glass of wine, then left in search of food.

She found an open restaurant in Lakeway, but they had already closed the kitchen. After another glass of wine at the bar and half-way into a second glass, she realized she was tired and needed to go to bed.

On her way home to Steiner Ranch, as Clara navigated a dark and windy back road, another vehicle swerved into her lane. She turned sharply to avoid a head-on collision and drove off the road. Her car hit a fence and a utility pole, totalling her vehicle. Her airbags deployed and, unbeknownst to her, she was knocked unconscious.

She came to with police shining their flashlights in her vehicle’s windows. Transported by ambulance to the hospital, Clara was evaluated for injuries before doctors determined she was unharmed.

At the hospital, police asked if they could test her blood alcohol level (BAC). It was a “no-refusal” weekend in Travis County, so police got a court order for the blood draw and arrested Clara on the spot. Police in Texas are not required to confirm a person’s BAC to make an arrest but must only have a reasonable suspicion.

Clara was cuffed and taken to the Austin Police Department downtown. There all her personal possessions were confiscated and she was made to sit, cuffed, in the waiting area because the jail’s holding cells were all full on a busy Friday night.

She shivered from the cold until finally receiving her orange jumpsuit. Most surprising of all for the suburban mom was the order to remove her bra and panties, because she, “might be wearing gang colors and it might cause a commotion.” She was issued paper undergarments to wear instead.

Arraigned in front of a judge the next afternoon, Clara returned to the jail after lunch had already been served. More than 12 hours after her initial search for a meal in Lakeway and subsequent arrest, Clara ate a stale baloney and cheese sandwich alone in cell.

Because it was Clara’s first offense, she paid a small fine and was released. With her totalled car in the impound lot, which was closed for the weekend, she had to find a cab to return to Steiner.

Once home, she realized that her only way into the house — her garage door opener — was in her car. She had to pay a locksmith to let her into the house.

DWI costs

And this was just the beginning of the many expenses associated with Clara’s DWI. Costs for a DWI in Texas are among the most expensive in the U.S., averaging $7,000 to $10,000.

These costs include bonds, car towing, lawyer fees, probation fees, court fees, surcharges, an Interlock device, paperwork and fines.

“First, though, I lost my license for six months. But because I was a single parent, and I had to work and I had to transport my child around, I got an occupational license so that I could drive to and from work and transport (my son) to the doctor and school and whatever. And that costs extra,” she said.

When finally she went to court, nearly a year and half after her arrest, Clara was offered either a plea bargain or a jury trial. The plea was 16 months probation, an Interlock (a breathalyzer installed in her vehicle at her expense), participation in an outpatient program and 100 hours of community service. A trial could have resulted in a not guilty verdict, but it could also have meant penalties up to twice what the District Attorney was offering.

At this point her blood test results were in and Clara’s BAC was one-and-a-half times the legal limit, not surprising for this petite woman of just over 100 pounds.

She accepted the plea and began her probation. At the classes and service hours she attended, she met many others like her — otherwise “respectable” members of the Austin community.

The first probation officer she met with told her, “You’re not alone. You’d be surprised how many people — you know, prominent city officials, doctors, lawyers, teachers, whatever — have these too. There’s a lot of people getting arrested.”

Three days a week, Clara was required to attend three-hour long substance abuse assessments with classes about drugs and alcohol. Absences and tardies were not allowed.

At the same time, a color-coded system dictated when random drug tests would be ordered, and if Clara’s color was drawn, she had to immediately go downtown to pee in a cup.

The Interlock in her vehicle meant that Clara could not start her car without first waiting for the device to warm up then blowing into it to measure her BAC. When a friend of her son’s asked what the device was, she lied and said, “Oh, I’m testing out a new engine,” just to avoid an embarrassing explanation. Like the pee tests, the device would beep at random intervals as she drove, requiring retesting in order for her to continue to drive.

And she wasn’t allowed to go out of town unless it was to care for a family member. For a year and half, Clara’s only trips were to Houston to visit her aging father.

Then, worst of all, “I got a really good job, and I had disclosed from the beginning, and on several applications. There was two or three times that I had to write that I had a DWI. And they did a background check… I had a month to go (of probation), and they hired me.” Then suddenly the company changed it’s mind and “temporarily suspended” her job offer.

They indicated she could reapply when her probation had ended, but Clara never was again consider for the job despite her repeated inquiries.

This was the hardest loss of all for this single mom in a protracted divorce who was not yet receiving any child support.

“You feel like, you’re trying to do everything that they want you to do. I was already going through so many other stressful things. All the time and more financial things, and then to finally feel like, okay, I got a great job here. I don’t have to worry anymore. And then, because of this they took it away.”

Clara doesn’t feel sorry for herself. She knows the mistake was her and recognizes the good fortune in her circumstances, that she was not hurt or killed and did not kill anyone.

Still, the the experience was exhausting, both physically and emotionally. She is still feeling the strain that it put on her financially. She had to tell her son what she had done. And new laws mean that this will be on her record forever. A DWI can only be removed with a pardon from the governor.

And Clara was a model probationer. When she completed the program, her probation officer said that she was, “the first person in all the years I’ve been working here who’s actually finished this whole process.” That is a testament not only to Clara’s character but also to how challenging the program is to complete.

To others, she warns, “I think people don’t realize how much of a process it is. It changes your life. I think it’s always good for all of us to be introspective and self-aware and obviously careful. The roads are dangerous and hazardous anyway… It really sets your life back. It makes it harder, when something like this happens, to persevere. It drains a lot of your resources and energy and time.”

If the goal of the system is to scare people straight, then it has worked, at least for Clara.

“If I feel like I’m going to be having drinks, then I don’t drive. I either get a cab, or I’ll be riding with friends… I’m not driving.”


Advice from law enforcement

Roger Wade, Travis County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson, says that, “We constantly tell our deputies to be on the lookout,” for intoxicated drivers. He adds that, “Buzzed driving is drunk driving. If you drink, don’t drive.”

“We tell people, don’t be intoxicated behind the wheel, but people don’t know what that means. So now we just say, if you drink (any alcohol), don’t drive… Make sure you have a designated driver when you go out.”

“Go out, have fun, enjoy… but if you’re going to be drinking, have a designated driver.”

“Because to you, one or two drinks may be enough to get you involved in a major accident. We don’t want that happening.”

He further cautions that, “If not the sheriff’s office, it may be the constable’s office, it may be Department of Public Safety, the city police… you’ve got all these different law enforcement agencies out there looking for people who are driving while intoxicated… So we’re going to see you before you see us.”

In 2013 in Travis County, there were 1,610 alcohol-related crashes, 22 deaths of intoxicated drivers and 41 alcohol-related fatalities.