When Capt. Terry Wilz discusses his worst experiences in law enforcement, it does not involve a criminal with a gun.
His worst experiences involve having to tell a family that a close relative was killed in a traffic crash.
“It’s absolutely heartbreaking for an officer to have to to go to a family member and advise them that their daughter or son or husband or wife will not be coming home again,” Wilz said. “We really do have a vested interest in stopping drunk drivers. That victim could be our family member who was struck by a drunk driver. We take it to heart.”
Wilz is captain of the Patrol Division for the Waupaca County Sheriff’s Department. He supervises 18 officers who made 163 drunken driving arrests in 2011.
Most drunken drivers are pulled over because the officer has seen them violate another traffic law or because they are driving erratically.
“You’d be surprised how many of the drunk drivers are stopped because they are speeding or driving so slow that they are impeding traffic or they have a vehicle violation such as an expired license plate,” Wilz said.
Field sobriety tests
In order to make an arrest for operating while intoxicated, an officer must be able to show probable cause.
If a patrol officer suspects that a driver has been drinking due to bloodshot eyes or a strong aroma of alcohol, he will conduct several field sobriety tests: the horizontal gaze nystagmus test, the one-leg stand test and the walk-and-turn test.
The horizontal gaze nystagmus test looks for involuntary jerking of the eyeballs, which becomes evident when a person is under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
The officer holds an object, such as a pencil or penlight, in front of the driver and tells him to follow the object with his eyes without moving his head. He will move the object from one side to the other. An impaired driver’s eyes will not be able to follow the motion of the object smoothly.
“You’ll see uncontrollable twitching and the individual has no clue that it’s happening,” Wilz said.
With the one-leg stand the officer tells the driver to stand with one foot about six inches off the ground while counting aloud. During the test, drivers are also required to keep their arms at their side, look down at their foot, and keep their toes pointed. The test usually lasts about 10 seconds.
“What we are looking for is their ability to maintain their balance without using their arms,” Wilz said.
If the person taking the one-leg stand test starts hopping, waving their arms to avoid falling or they place their foot down before the test is over, that can be considered evidence of impaired driving.
The final field sobriety test is the walk-and-turn. The officer usually tells the driver to take 10 steps, heel-to-toe, in a straight line, then pivot on one foot and walk back the same way.
“We’re looking for clues for intoxication,” Wilz said. “Are they able to walk in a straight line? Are they losing their balance? Are they doing the turn the way they were instructed?”
Testing for blood-alcohol levels
Drivers who fail the field sobriety tests may be required to take a preliminary breath test.
“All officers are certified and carry a PBT with them,” Wilz said.
Although a PBT reading is not admissable as evidence in court, an officer may use the results to determine whether to arrest the driver and have a blood sample taken.
In Waupaca County, drivers who are suspected of OWI are taken to either Riverside Medical Center in Waupaca or to New London Family Medical Center for a blood draw. The sample is then sent to the State Crime Lab in Madison.
“Under the implied consent law, the state Supreme Court has ruled that you cannot refuse a test if an officer requests it,” Wilz said.
He noted that officers will resort to physical force to restrain drivers who refuse to allow their blood to be drawn for testing.
“We’re looking to obtain that evidence regardless of whether they refuse or not,” Wilz said.
Refusal to submit to a blood-alcohol test results in a driver’s license being immediately suspended for one year, while a first-time OWI conviction is usually for nine months.
If an officer suspects that a driver is impaired by something other than alcohol, the blood sample can also be tested for drugs or marijuana. The penalties for driving under the influence of drugs are the same as the penalties for driving intoxicated.
Most first-time OWI offenders do not spend the night in jail after they are arrested.
“There are a number of things we look at,” Wilz said. “If they have ties to the community – such as family or a job – they will be released.”
Wilz said law enforcement’s real goal is to make the roads safer for the public.
“Whether the case gets tossed out of court or gets pleaded down, we know that we took a dangerous driver off the road that day,” Wilz said.
This is the second in a series on the costs and consequences of alcohol abuse.