The sobering reality of an OUI arrest

Officer Josh Little stands beside a calibrated breathalyzer machine at the Dukes County Jail and House of Correction in Edgartown. — Photo by Michael Cummo

A glance at the court report published weekly in The Times reveals that arrests for operating a vehicle under the influence (OUI) are commonplace on Martha’s Vineyard. Although the list of arraignments and dispositions appear as brief snippets in a list on a page, the consequences to the people whose names appear are far-reaching.

There is personal embarrassment for individuals who in many cases have never been arrested, significant financial cost, and the inconvenience of a loss of license to drive.

“A simple OUI is a year in hell,” Island attorney Jennifer Marcus told The Times.

Ms. Marcus is a court-appointed defense attorney and she also maintains a private practice on the Island. She estimates that 75 percent of her caseload is OUI arrests, and the vast majority of the people arrested had no prior criminal record.

“They don’t see themselves as a criminal, they’re just regular people who made a bad choice,” she said. “So many of them say they knew they were on the edge, but they drove anyway.”

Ms. Marcus said her clients endure consuming regret and shame when they appear in court and see their name in the paper. Over the long term, consequences lead to considerable complications. “Losing the ability to drive in a rural community like the Vineyard is life-changing,” she said. “What do you do when you drive kids to school and you live down a dirt road? There’s also a message it sends to the children you’re raising, and to their friends, and the parents who raise them.”

“The license ramifications are gigantic,” Robert Moriarty, an attorney at Edgartown firm of McCarron, Murphy, Vukota, told The Times. “It could easily cost you 10 grand and it’s a huge pain,” he said.“I try to make it as quick and as painless as possible, but it’s the district attorney’s job to prosecute and they do it well.”
According to Massachusetts law, “The maximum legal concentration of alcohol in the bloodstream (BAC) for an adult operating a motor vehicle is 0.08. For a minor under the age of 21, this limit is 0.02.

Hoping that their OUI arrests might spare others from making the same mistake, three Islanders arrested for OUI told their stories to The Times on the condition they not be identified by their real names.

A date ends badly
“I was on a date in Oak Bluffs and I drank more than usual because I was nervous,” Margaret of Tisbury said. A successful professional in her late 20s with a penchant for preppy, Margaret looks more like an L.L. Bean model than a lawbreaking citizen who until last month, was assigned to a probation officer. “I knew I was probably over the limit, but you do it enough times, you see friends and co-workers do it, you forget,” she said, shaking her head at her flawed logic. “You also think it’s safer on the Island because you know the roads so well, you’re not going very far and you can’t go very fast.

“I was doing about 40 [miles per hour] going over the [Lagoon Pond] bridge, when I saw the police car, sitting where they always are on Beach Road. I slammed on the brakes because there’s that short stretch where it’s 20 miles an hour. Then he pulled out behind me…” she said, her voice trailing off. “He asked if I’d been drinking, I said yes and started crying. I can’t lie.”

Margaret quickly found herself handcuffed and sitting on the rock-hard plastic seat in the back of a police cruiser. The breathalyzer machine at the Dukes County jail malfunctioned so she was taken to the hospital for a blood test. She failed. After a night in jail, she used her one phone call to get a taxi. “I was too ashamed to call anyone,” she said.

Margaret didn’t hire an attorney. “It didn’t make financial sense to hire a lawyer to try to beat the system. I was guilty. I’m not a liar,” she said.

Even though her probation officer reminded her that jail time was a possibility and strongly suggested she hire a lawyer, Margaret went before the judge on her own.

“I’ve never been so nervous in my life,” she said. “I don’t even remember what the judge said.”

In addition to a suspended license, Margaret had to take, at her own expense, a 16-week OUI offender class at Martha’s Vineyard Community Services. She had 19 classmates.

“Most of the people said they were very close to home, and that though they had been drinking, they didn’t think they were legally drunk,” she said. There are no hearing officers on the Island, which meant repeated trips to the Cape, without a car. “My aunt met me at the boat and drove me to South Yarmouth,” she said.

“The first time I went on a Friday and they were closed. The second time I went in the afternoon and couldn’t get in to see him because the line was so long. The third time I got there early in the morning and waited all day to see him. I missed three days of work to talk to someone for five minutes.”

Because she also had a marked lane violation, common in OUI arrests, Margaret had to go to an eight-hour driver retraining course off Island as well. “It was so dumb and it could have been much worse,” she said. “I figured for the amount of money I spent, I could have gone out five nights a week for the past year, taken a taxi home, and still had money left over.”

An evening of music ends on a bad note
Like Margaret, Paul, a semi-retired carpenter from West Tisbury in his mid-60s, had never been in trouble with the law before his OUI arrest this summer. Like Margaret, Paul was pulled over on Beach Road, just after crossing the Lagoon Pond drawbridge around 1 am. Like Margaret, Paul had just come from Oak Bluffs, where he listened to a band at the Ritz cafe. But the similarities end there.

Paul said he was not over the legal limit, and that his consumption totaled three beers over the course of five hours. On the advice of a lawyer friend who was in the car when he was pulled over, Paul refused to take the breathalyzer test administered at the jail. By law, a refusal is an automatic six-month license suspension.

“One of the things I’ve discovered is the court system is incredibly inefficient,” Paul told The Times. “Since the arrest, I’ve been to court four times. Each time I had to wait five to six hours, and each time my time in front of a judge was about 30 seconds and so far the only thing I have to show is a trial date in February.”

Paul said he’s fortunate that he’s semi-retired, but he had to give up work he’d secured before the arrest. “I can’t take all my tools on the bus,” he said. The loss of license is also going to affect a long-planned vacation. “My wife and I were going to fly to Oregon and drive down the coast all the way to Los Angeles,” he said. “I’m not sure what we’ll do now.”

Paul doesn’t regret the snap decision to refuse the breathalyzer, but the shame of going to jail in handcuffs sent him into a spiral. “I’m not a depressive person, but I went into a deep funk for a while after spending the night in jail,” he said. “I replayed every negative thing I’ve ever done since elementary school.”

Paul said despite the enormous inconveniences, and the cost of the OUI, which he estimates to be $4,000 so far, some positives have come out of the experience. “My wife and I spend a lot more time together than we used to. She’s been great about all this. Even when I called her from jail at three in the morning.”

While Paul’s spirits have lifted, his future is still fraught with uncertainty. “I don’t know what to expect,” he said. “Hopefully this will all be over in February.”

Twice bitten
When Chilmarker James, 50, got his first OUI charge, he was certain he was under the limit. “We were at a wedding up-Island and I had maybe four beers over three hours,” he said. “There had been some noise complaints so the police were just waiting for people to leave. They pulled me over, said they detected a strong odor of alcohol, and asked if I had been drinking. I said I had, and they arrested me.”

Fast forward 20 years. James is known for his cautious driving. “People joked that I drove like a grandmother,” he said.

“He did drive like a grandmother,” his ex-wife of 11 years told The Times. “The whole time we were married, I never saw James drink irresponsibly and drive.”

But recently, after a night of dancing and four glasses of wine at an Edgartown establishment, James chose to drive home. He’d passed a cab stand on the way to his car, but dismissed the idea, reasoning the fare to his Chilmark home would be at least $40.

“I did a rolling stop, the cop pulled me over, then my life began to unravel,” he said.

The consequences of a second OUI are considerably more onerous, not the least of which is 30 days mandatory jail time, unless a judge grants an alternative disposition which commutes the sentence to a two week stint at an inpatient rehab facility. The second OUI carries a fine of up to $10,000 and loss of license for two years.

“Because I refused the breathalyzer, my license will be suspended for anywhere from six months to three years,” James said. “I’ve already spent $3,000 dollars on a lawyer, there’s another $1,000 for drunk driving school and I’ll spend my two weeks of vacation time at inpatient rehab, which I also pay for. And when I get my license back, I’ll have to pay three grand for a breath monitor,” he said, referring to the ignition interlock that requires the driver blow into a breathalyzer to start their car.

James implored Islanders to make the choice he dearly wishes he’d made. “I can’t stress  this enough, if you’re looking at your car and wondering if you’re over the limit, don’t mess around, get your ass in a taxi. Beg, borrow or steal the fare to get home. If you live up-Island, they’ll charge you top dollar but at the end of the day, that cab will cost less than one percent of what you pay for an OUI.”

Serve and protect
“I’d like to think people are a little smarter than they were 10 years ago,” Oak Bluffs Police Lieutenant Tim Williamson told The Times. “More people are using designated drivers and cabs, and the safe rides program at the high school does a good job.”

Mr. Williamson said the majority of the OUI arrests in Oak Bluffs are people who are well above the .08 limit. Many are repeat offenders. “It doesn’t take a lot to reach .08,” he said.

Rather than use checkpoints, Mr. Williamson said his department does targeted enforcement. “We send officers out every night specifically looking for impaired drivers. None of my officers take pleasure in arresting people, but we have our job to do. It can be tough in a small community when you know the person or you have mutual friends. Years ago, police could decide to give someone a ride home but that all changed when police in Ware gave a guy a ride home and he went back to his car and had a head-on collision that killed three people. There’s no discretion anymore. If you’re over .08, we have to arrest you. But it’s better to be arrested than to hurt someone in an accident, or worse.”

By the numbers
Island police departments reported the following number of OUI arrests to date in 2014: Oak Bluffs, 56 OUI arrests ( 41 in 2013); Edgartown, 37 OUI alcohol arrests, 1 for drugs; (33 in 2013) Tisbury, 50 OUI arrests (28 in 2013); West Tisbury, 6 (19 in 2013); Chilmark, 4 OUI arrests; Aquinnah, no arrests in 2014 to date and none in 2013.

“Our numbers are going down because people are taking cabs, unlike years in the past,” West Tisbury police chief Dan Rossi said.