Editor’s note: Reader interest in this topic has prompted Xpress to post the following longer version of the letter to the editor “Beer City, USA — or DWI City, USA?” which appeared in the May 20 issue and online.
I have been an upstanding and law-abiding citizen all of my life. In July 2014, I was arrested and charged with the offense of driving under the influence of alcohol, while being within the legal limit of blood-alcohol content (BAC) and without any appreciable signs of impairment. In my entire 60-plus years, I have never had to endure such a challenge to my character as well as wade through a tedious and expensive legal process. After being convicted in District Court, I appealed that conviction and took the case to a jury in Superior Court. I was found not guilty by a jury.
The entire traffic stop and arrest was recorded on video by the police vehicle dash camera. Videos like this are not permitted in District Court, and I had to fight tooth and nail to make it available to my lawyer for use in Superior Court, as the video was the only tangible proof of my innocence, and otherwise it would have only been my word against the officer’s.
The Asheville DWI task force is trained to look for 24 signs/clues in order to deem an individual impaired, and only one was used against me. I simply failed to turn on my headlights after leaving a well-lit parking lot. The traffic stop that followed was unnerving, and I was treated as though my guilt was a foregone conclusion, rather than being evaluated objectively for DWI. I tried my best to comply with the officer’s requests, as I have never encountered a situation like this, where I was assumed guilty without any evidence to this effect.
The police officer, with all [her] training and experience, got this one wrong! I was not impaired, nor was I confused. This was purely a case of harassment and entrapment. I was detained for far too long without charge. I was humiliated and stunned to be handcuffed and thrown in a police car and detained further at the station while the officer tried in vain to have me blow over the legal limit, to justify the arrest.
I have certainly received an education in North Carolina DWI law. My ordeal made it blatantly apparent to me how ambiguous and open to interpretation North Carolina DWI laws are.
First of all, it is not against the law to have a drink and drive as long as you are not impaired by that substance or by any other substance. Your [blood]-alcohol concentration (BAC) must be below 0.08 for adults, 0.00 under 21 years of age and .04 if driving a commercial vehicle. It would seem that the law should either limit your BAC to below .08 or it should be 0.0. This gray area somewhere in between is a big problem for all the communities in North Carolina, and especially for a robust and growing city like Asheville, so-called “Beer City, USA” and one the top 10 of places to live.
When I moved here in the ’80s, Asheville was a boarded-up ghost town. If we want to foster a thriving tourism economy, and, it would seem, a “destination craft brew mecca” kind of culture, then law enforcement needs to understand that driving around in a DWI task force Humvee and hassling people on foot in downtown roadways sends a very mixed message to visitors who come here to enjoy local food, drink and culture.
It is apparent that our law enforcement officers have not been properly trained to deal with this new direction our fine city is obviously taking. Police officers can be extremely effective at preventing and punishing DWI without behaving as if there is a “gold rush” on DWI dollars.
They apparently need sensitivity training to help them understand how to evaluate and interface with decent, law-abiding citizens in their effort to sniff out offenders. In my situation, it was very apparent that the driving force behind my arrest had nothing to do with my impairment (or lack thereof, according to a Superior Court jury) and everything to do with reaching quotas, and justifying hasty and inappropriate behavior in the field.
Refusing to acknowledge any middle ground between letting someone go on their way and throwing them in a squad car exhibits a major oversight on the part of law enforcement. The idea that officers should be able to handle a situation like this respectfully, tactfully and appropriately should not be a foreign or unattainable concept.
This officer could have easily seen that I was not impaired enough to justify an arrest, and if she still had reservations about cutting me loose, could have provided an option to call a cab or a friend for a ride home. Arrest is not the only way to solve an ambiguous situation, but it is the only way to notch toward a quota that is used to justify federal funding for a local DWI task force.
To be very clear, I do not condone drunk or impaired driving! I do not wish to drive drunk or have anyone killed or injured due to drunk driving. I have respect for law enforcement. But we must take note that North Carolina law gives officers liberal discretion in deciding whether they believe someone is driving while intoxicated.
You can be arrested and charged with a DWI in North Carolina, purely at the discretion of the arresting officer. This puts an enormous responsibility on them to use logic and objectivity in their evaluation, which this officer thoroughly proved incapable of using. Asking someone to blow into a Breathalyzer again and again, hoping that the unit will eventually show a falsely high number (after several results within the legal limit) is morally and technically wrong, and it shows desperation and bias on the part of law enforcement.
You may not be aware that North Carolina’s top state judge has said that “DWI arrests are increasing, and the processing of cases sometimes stretches out for a year or longer.” This inundates the court system, and doesn’t allow it to function as it was designed. In Wake County, the chief justice’s solution is to increase funding for the system, leading an effort to get $30 million to increase salaries and cover operating costs. The district attorney’s office has upped the number of dedicated DWI courts, and has added more dates for hearing appeals. This type of thinking exacerbates the problem. Meanwhile, real crime goes unprosecuted. Tremendous backlog exists, as the system is continuously flooded with questionable (at best) DWI charges.
You may have noticed the brand-new, military-style DWI task force Humvees patrolling the streets here in Asheville. They are quite formidable, resembling a swat team with a DWI lab. Does this make us feel safe, or does it cast a negative light on a flourishing and vibrant downtown?
As a city, we go to extensive measures marketing Asheville as an open, hospitable and welcoming environment for tourism dollars, which benefits local business, and local government in the form of tax revenue. Does this kind of police presence have any effect other than undermining the city’s stated goals, and making locals want to stay home, abandoning our fine restaurants, music venues and bars for fear of being persecuted incorrectly by law enforcement?
I would encourage everyone to familiarize themselves with the laws governing DWI in this state. I have had many friends charged with DWI with a BAC of less than .08. The costs involved are staggering. The waste of time and money prosecuting these cases is unconscionable. The price tag incurred for even a guilty plea is at least $1,000 from the onset and goes up from there, especially when you factor in the myriad of miscellaneous charges (towing fees, community service, counseling, etc.) and the resulting insurance rate hike.
These fees are absolutely devastating to most of our citizens. Within two days of my arrest, my mailbox was inundated with brochures from DUI lawyers and substance-abuse counselors. This is a racket, folks, and a revenue-generating money machine. I will now think twice about having a drink with dinner at one of our fine establishments, or a beer at one of our countless breweries, as I feel that the policy being employed by the Asheville Police Department is a gross overreach and misinterpretation of a law designed to protect people from legitimate drunk driving, as well as an unethical and opportunistic method to collect more money in the courts from local citizens.
If we want Asheville to thrive, we need to have a balanced and fair approach to handling the inevitable concerns that accompany a title like “Beer City, USA.” This requires some nuance and strategy on the part of law enforcement, who have consistently shown their response to be as if it’s a free-for-all, or open season on anyone they can [get] their hands on. Word travels fast about this kind of behavior, and it affects all demographics, not just kids acting irresponsibly, but upstanding locals and visitors who come to town to spend their money and support Asheville as a thriving destination.
If this injustice continues, at the very least, they are shooting themselves in the foot economically, and one day they may just board up downtown businesses and Asheville will return to the way it was in the ’80s … barren and lifeless.
— Aileen Pearlman