“Welcome to the Cass County Bar and Grill,” said Sgt. Jess Claibourn as four volunteers walked into the cafeteria at the Cass County Sheriff’s Office on a recent Sunday morning.
It was a bit early in the day to be getting drunk, but that would be the job of the volunteers over the next three hours.
Cans of Bud Light and bottles of vodka, Jack Daniels and spiced rum — along with some orange juice and two-liter containers of Sprite and Coke — sat on top of an ice bucket for participants to drink.
When Claibourn first made the call asking volunteers of legal age to drink on the county’s dime, he even inquired about their beverage of choice.
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Not a typical phone call one would receive from law enforcement.
But this was the annual “wet lab,” where deputies train recruits enrolled in the Cass County’s Sheriff’s Office Regional Training Academy on how to test for alcohol impairment during driving-under-the influence investigations.
“We want them to get the first-hand experience with someone under the influence so they know what to look for when they’re out there roadside,” Claibourn said.
Statistically, 1 in 10 drivers on the road after 10 p.m. on a Friday or Saturday night will be intoxicated.
“That’s scary,” Claibourn said. “That’s every 10 cars that pass you on the highway.”
Daytime arrests also are common.
“We do have deputies that can find intoxicated, impaired people driving during the daytime,” Claibourn said. “It happens quite frequently, unfortunately.”
Claibourn says that alcohol-related crashes are the most preventable types of accidents that can occur. One might be prevented every time someone who has been drinking chooses not to drive.
Recruits in the training academy have spent a week learning about alcohol impairment in their studies and how to conduct Standardized Field Sobriety Testing on a driver who is suspected of being impaired.
“They’ve been watching videos of intoxicated people, but on a screen, there’s no background noise, having the subject listen to what you say. It’s a controlled environment,” Claibourn said.
While the class work is valuable, Cass County instructors also feel that it’s important to give recruits hands-on training using live subjects.
“We try to do it here, where they have one-on-one contact with an intoxicated person,” Claibourn said. “On a TV, if they miss something, they can’t just say, ‘Can you hold on a second, sir,’ and pause.”
The volunteers, selected from the Cass County Sheriff’s Office Auxiliary, were picked up at their homes by a deputy. A deputy would take them home at the end of the exercise.
Upon their arrival at the training area at midmorning that Sunday, volunteers were served drinks one right after another to get them to a 0.10 blood alcohol content level in about three hours. The legal BAC limit is 0.08.
Deputies served as the bartenders, and Claibourn kept tabs on each volunteer in terms of what they drank and at what time they started consuming each drink.
The gathering started off quietly. Volunteers kept to themselves with mobile devices they had brought along — browsing Facebook, playing games. One volunteer had brought a sewing project.
Frequent trips to the bathroom soon became common, and some started to complain of slight discomfort, but they continued to drink on.
“We want to get them above the legal limit,” Claibourn said. “We use a lot of math on how to get them there without going too fast so they don’t make it to the end.”
At each hour, the volunteers blew into a Breathalyzer as Cpl. Doug Snooks monitored their progress.
The individuals became chattier and less reserved as the morning went on. Although they were being supervised by law enforcement, deputies tried to make the experience fun.
A laptop played music in the background and observers conversed with the drinkers. Each volunteer consumed eight to 10 drinks.
By 1 p.m., volunteers had finished their drinks and their BAC was tested again. Percentages ranged from 0.92 to 0.141 percent.
All were above the legal limit for driving.
“They’re on the low end of the spectrum in terms of intoxication,” Snooks said. “Normally what you’re going to see on the road is going to be higher levels — 0.150 to 0.200.”
To start off the sobriety testing, volunteers were introduced to the recruits, and the scenario played out as if they had been stopped as suspected drunken drivers.
Recruits asked each volunteer a series of questions, including, “What is your name? and “How much had you had to drink?” before conducting a battery of three tests: Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus, Walk-and-Turn and One-Leg Stand.
Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus is the involuntary jerking of the eye that occurs naturally as the eyes gaze to the side.
“It’s like turning your windshield wipers on during a rainy day. Your windshield wipers run pretty smooth,” Claibourn said. “When you’re intoxicated, it’s like turning them on during a dry day — your eyes will bounce. As they move across, they will fixate as the object moves and you have to catch up.”
Instructors walked around the perimeters to coach the recruits as they looked to perfect the skill.
The three tests are similar to the procedures that officers conduct when they make a traffic stop or during a sobriety checkpoint when they suspect a driver might be intoxicated.
Deputies with the sheriff’s office participate in about one checkpoint a month. Sometimes they host their own, or will assist with another agency’s event.
Claibourn said the purpose of a checkpoints is to influence people not to drink and drive.
“We do sobriety checkpoints not to arrest drunk drivers, but to make people think about, ‘I might get stopped,’” Claibourn said. “We don’t want them to drive. If you hear us say we’re going to have checkpoint next week, you’re less likely to go out and drive. That’s our main goal.”
Once the recruits had spent an adequate amount of time with volunteers, everyone returned to a classroom.
By a show of hands, the majority of the recruits said they would have taken each of the volunteers to jail had they really been stopped for drinking and driving.
With each volunteer, Claibourn then told the recruits what they had to drink and their BAC level prior to the testing.
Claibourn said that while there are fewer drunk drivers on the roads than 20 years ago, it’s still important to spread the message to not drink and drive — even if you’ve only had a couple drinks.
“Most of the time you stop somebody, they say, ‘Yeah, I’ve had a couple of beers,’” he said. “We hear that a lot.”
But unfortunately, drunk driving kills.
According to the Missouri Statewide Traffic Accident Records System, 18 people have been killed in Cass County because of drinking-involved crashes in the last five years. Further, 168 people were injured during the same period.
Similarly, in the last 12 months, there have been two deaths and 25 drinking-involved crashes in Cass County.
“It’s such an avoidable accident,” Claibourn said. “Fatality accidents involving alcohol could easily be prevented by just not drinking and driving.”
Are you drunk?
Law enforcement officers may use these tests to screen drivers who might be intoxicated:
▪ Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus: This is the involuntary jerking of the eye that happens naturally as someone gazes to the side. Under normal circumstances, the eyes rotate at high peripheral angles. When a person is impaired by alcohol, nystagmus is exaggerated and may occur at lesser angles.
In conducting the test, the officer observes the eyes as the suspected drunken driver follows a slowly-moving object such as a pen or small flashlight, horizontally with his or her eyes. The examiner looks for indicators of impairment in each eye.
▪ Walk-and-Turn: The driver is directed to take nine steps, heel-to-toe, along a straight line. After taking the steps, the person must turn on one foot and return in the same manner in the opposite direction.
The examiner looks for eight indicators of impairment: if the suspect cannot keep balance while listening to the instructions, begins before the instructions are finished, stops while walking to regain balance, does not touch heel-to-toe, steps off the line, uses arms to balance, makes an improper turn or takes an incorrect number of steps.
▪ One-Leg Stand: The driver is instructed to stand with one foot about 6 inches off the ground and count aloud by thousands (One thousand-one, one thousand-two, etc.) until told to put the foot down. The officer times the subject for 30 seconds.
Police look for four indicators of impairment: swaying while balancing, using arms to balance, hopping to maintain balance and putting the foot down.
How many drinks have you had?
One drink is considered:
▪ 12 fluid ounces of beer
▪ 5 fluid ounces of wine
▪ A 1.5-fluid-ounce shot of hard liquor