Today I sat on a jury, the first time I’ve ever had to do so. The trial has concluded and the judge instructed us that we are free to discuss the case with whomever we please now, but I’m still going to be vague on personal details so as not to harm the defendant’s reputation any more than he himself has already harmed it.
Last Friday I had to go to the county court for jury selection. The defendant was charged with drunk driving, so naturally the prosecutor and defense attorneys probed us for our beliefs about things like whether the government should have the right to set a legal limit on body alcohol level, our feelings about the police, whether we ourselves drink alcohol and so on. The gentleman seated next to me worked for the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, and when asked if he agreed that the government had the right to set the body alcohol limit at 0.08, he said, “No. It should be 0. Our research indicates that any alcohol impairs driving ability.”
Needless to say the defense asked for him to be excused, so the judge thanked and excused him. I thought, “Gosh, that guy sure has strict ideas about alcohol and driving. Seems to me like most people can handle having one drink when out to dinner and then driving home.” But now I sort of see his point but for different reasons.
I’ll give you the short version of the story – if you’ve ever sat on a jury for a criminal trial, you know these things are not exciting events like on TV that wrap up nice and neat in an hour. They go on and on and on while the lawyers ask what to the lay person appears to be a large number of very stupid questions (“Trooper, we see in the dashboard video that you are writing something in a notebook. Did that pertain to the subject you were placing under arrest?” Uh no, shucks, that was just my grocery list, sir.) but no doubt they have their reasons for doing it like that. Still, at one point even the judge encouraged the prosecutor to sort of, you know…skip ahead a bit, brother.
Basically, the defendant was a young guy from Chelsea who went to a tailgate party before a U of M game and had some drinks. Apparently he had a buzz going and walked around Ann Arbor with some friends for awhile before driving home. He got pulled over on the highway for a burned out headlight even though he was driving just fine – not speeding or swerving or anything like that. When the state trooper pulled him over, he smelled alcohol on one of the passengers and had the driver exit the vehicle. What started out as a warning about one burned out headlight turned into a criminal investigation.
The trooper claimed the driver failed the field sobriety test, but the dashboard video does not support his claim. The video shows the young man being compliant and passing the FST; conveniently, the trooper had no audio because the mic battery was dead and he did not replace it.
The trooper arrested the young man and took him to the county jail, where the young man consented to take a breathalyzer test, which showed his body alcohol level to be 0.09 with a margin of error of 0.01. The legal limit is 0.08 or above.
The entire thing was kind of sad because the young guy testified that he felt fine and thus assumed he was okay to drive. The dashboard video of how he was operating his vehicle and how he performed on the FST supports his claim that he did not feel any intoxication. Without the breathalyzer data, there would have been zero evidence of intoxication. It’s surprising that the trooper arrested him, given how not drunk the young man seemed. It’s a shame about that one headlight.
We the jury of course really had no choice but to find him guilty. It bummed us out badly to do so, though, because we all agreed that who among us had never had to make the determination that even though we’d had a couple of drinks, we felt fine and were able to drive with no problem? None of us had ever taken a breathalyzer test and had no idea what a 0.08 feels like – how do you know if you have an elevated body alcohol level if you feel just fine?
And because the law allows you to drink some amount of alcohol and still drive, you either have to carry a portable breathalyzer with you or use a subjective “How do I feel?” test to determine if you are probably within the legal limit. This young man said he felt fine and I believe him. I believe probably nearly anyone who felt as he obviously felt would have deemed themselves able to drive. Yet he was in violation of the law. It turns out your feelings aren’t really a very good indicator of what you should do in some circumstances.
Which takes me back to the recommendation that the guy from U of M Transportation Research made: set the legal limit at 0. I sort of now agree with that; if everyone knows ahead of time that any alcohol in your system makes it illegal to drive, then we can feel justified in convicting anyone who has had anything to drink because they will automatically know for sure that they shouldn’t be driving. But as it stands right now, people are told they can drink some amount of alcohol and still drive, which causes me to have sympathy for those who are convicted even though they felt and behaved as if they had not been drinking. How would they really have known they shouldn’t be driving?
So why do we allow people to consume some amount of alcohol and then drive? Isn’t that terribly unfair to expect that people will just somehow “know” what their body alcohol level is? I think it is unfair and so did the rest of the jury. As we sat chatting and waiting for the bailiff to take our verdict, an older gentleman and I decided that it’s probably due to lobbying by the alcoholic beverages companies and the restaurant and bar associations that the law allows for some alcohol consumption before driving. So what if it means that once in a while, a young man will have his life ruined? There’s money to be made on booze! And you can’t make money if people are hesitant to consume your product because they might end up with a criminal conviction and a suspended license, can you?
We returned to the courtroom and the judge asked our foreman to read the verdict. I kept my eyes fixed on the judge though they were blurred with tears; I couldn’t look at the young man, who works at the local lumberyard here and has a new baby with his girlfriend, the same girlfriend who was the passenger who smelled so strongly of alcohol in the car that night, as the foreman said we found him guilty of driving while intoxicated.
The defense attorney demanded a jury poll. We each had to say we agreed with the verdict. It was kind of hard to get the words out because while I agreed that the verdict represented justice according to the law, I now believe that the law itself is unjust in allowing people to drink and drive. It caters to the booze purveyors and sacrifices hapless and foolish young men.
We returned to the jury room and the attendant brought us each an envelope with forty dollars in it. The four young men pocketed their cash and departed. The older gentleman and I sat a moment talking quietly together and then took our envelopes of cash over to the defense attorney and his client who were taking care of some paperwork. I tried to give it to the young man, but he just stood looking at me like I was nuts and did not take it. Come on, I silently pleaded, take it and absolve me of this guilt I feel. The older gentleman took my envelope and his and gave them to the defense attorney and escorted me out onto Main Street where smiling people were visible through the plate glass windows of Smokehouse 52 happily sipping their beers. The older gentleman gave me a hug, wished me well, and we walked off in our separate directions.