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Drunk or sober? Workshop for lawyers shows gaps in DUI tests

By Sarah L. Smith
Coastal Observer

They said they learned a lesson: Don’t drink and drive.

But participants at a workshop for lawyers on tests for people suspected of drunken driving also learned that determining whether a person is drunk or sober isn’t always easy.

Under a red and white sign proclaiming “hook and book by the book,” five volunteers went through the field sobriety tests commonly used by police.

Some wobbled, held out their arms for balance and giggled. Others were stoic, balanced and calm.

The lawyers at the workshop tried to decide which ones were drunk.

Scott Joye, a Murrells Inlet attorney, organized the workshop at Litchfield Beach and Golf Resort. Robert La Pier, a former Idaho police colonel who conducted it, explained that teaching lawyers how to take the tests helps them learn how to defend their clients.

It’s not a get-out-of-jail-free card, he said. It just shows the lawyers how mistakes can be made during tests.

Joye said he took the class 12 years ago in Tennessee and thought it would help defense lawyers in South Carolina.

“You want to know as much about what you do because when you know it, you’ll be in a position to help someone else,” Joye said.

The lawyers learned how to administer the tests given to drivers suspected of DUI: the one-leg stand, the vision test, and the walk and turn on a straight line. They practiced on themselves first, and then tested four volunteers who prepared for the session by drinking, and one volunteer who was sober.

The lawyers didn’t know who had the most to drink or who was sober.

Muffy Kneece, a former prosecutor from the Pawleys Island area, was legally sober. She sipped on a beer for three hours and made sure she smelled like alcohol before the test.

Although her blood-alcohol level was below the legal limit, one out of the five groups of lawyers determined they’d arrest her.

Kneece blamed an ankle injury.

“They asked the question, ‘Do you have any medical conditions that would prevent you from performing the tests,’ and my answer was no, ” she said. “The truth of the matter is my ankle prevented me from performing the test as well. My ankle was weak so I was unsteady on my feet.”

The tests required them to stand on one foot for 30 seconds, hold their balance on a straight line and then walk heel-to-toe for nine steps one way, pivot on their left foot and walk heel-to-toe in the opposite direction.

La Pier said police officers can administer other tests, such as touching your nose with your fingertip, if a suspect has a physical limitation.

“For me, I guess the bottom line is you just don’t drink and drive, which I don’t anyway,” Kneece said.

Phail Owens, a Hagley resident, was told to drink enough alcohol so she would be at the legal blood-alcohol limit, 0.08 percent.

“I was assigned six 1.5-ounce drinks,” she said. “They really wanted me inebriated.”

Three of the five teams determined she would go to jail. Two teams didn’t think she was above the legal limit to drive, which surprised her.

“The perception when you’re pulled is the perception of whether or not you’re drunk, and it’s the decision of the officer that pulls you,” she said.

The lawyers agreed to arrest the three men in the volunteer group.

Mel Beaver, Kneece’s husband and Steve Rayborn of Myrtle Beach had the highest blood-alcohol levels. They were arrested five out of five times. What differed was the amount of alcohol the groups estimated remained in the men’s systems. Guesses ranged between 0.08 and 0.18. Both were 0.12.

Tom Franklin of Murrells Inlet, whose blood-alcohol level was 0.08, was arrested twice. The three other groups determined he was sober.

Watching Franklin get off three times was an eye-opener, Kneece said.

“I think that literally, as a society, we need to come up with better systems for detecting people’s level of intoxication. We should be able to have a reasonable limit of alcohol and drive home,” she said.

The tests aren’t perfect, La Pier said, but they are better than the tests police officers used to make up.

Since 1983, all police officers in the United States go through DUI training at their state police academies.

Lt. Neil Johnson, spokesman for the Georgetown County Sheriff’s Office, said all deputies get training at the academy in Columbia. They also get DUI roadside training from the in-house training officer at the sheriff’s office.

“Although they are all taught how to perform these tests, officers can do them differently and get mixed results,” La Pier said.

Vikki Miller, a Mothers Against Drunk Drivers victims advocate in Litchfield, has a different point of view. She believes the conference was designed to teach lawyers how to get their clients out of paying fines.

“I have been to court with too many victims that have lost people they have loved,” she said.

Her husband, Bill Miller, was killed in Georgetown by a drunk driver at 3:30 p.m. on a Monday. Since then she’s supported the families of DUI victims who go to court.

“I have a very low regard for attorneys,” she said. “I’ve seen what these guys do. All they care about is getting the money from the victims.”

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