Driving in the Real World: Riding Along with Washington State Patrol: Part II, The DUI Patrol

Driving in the Real World: Riding Along with Washington State Patrol: Part II, The DUI Patrol

by | Apr 11, 2019

In the last Zündfolge issue, I wrote about riding along with the Washington State Patrol during a routine daytime shift. What law enforcement encounters on our roads is often fascinating and not what you’d expect.

My second ride-along was a Friday night shift that started at 10:00 pm in Tacoma, this time with Trooper Kevin Fortino, who is part of an elite Target Zero Team (TZT) that focuses on impaired driving. TZTs have been very effective in getting drunk drivers off the roads in several Washington State counties since their inception a few years ago as part of our governor-mandated highway safety plan of zero traffic deaths by 2030. TZT officers undergo special training in the complex nuances of impaired driving stops, sobriety testing, and related reports and paperwork, and they are sometimes called in by municipal law enforcement who don’t have as much training or knowledge in these areas.

As soon as I climbed into Trooper Fortino’s Ford Explorer, he explained we were already on a “hot run,” meaning that he was being called to investigate a DUI incident right away. He also asked that I minimize interaction with any suspect that might be apprehended to avoid escalating a situation (in-car cameras capture video and audio at all times).

We sped to a nearby area where a small car sat stationary in a center turning lane; local city police were already on the scene. Other motorists had spotted this vehicle moving erratically on a nearby freeway, reported it, and then at least one citizen had followed it off the highway so they could communicate with law enforcement as to its exact whereabouts and activity. It turns out that both WSP and municipal police are extremely grateful for—and rely on—local civilians to alert them to these dangerous situations. By law, officers are required to follow up on all such reports.

A young Caucasian man in his 20s had apparently passed out at the wheel in the middle of the road. Miraculously, his foot ended up resting on the brake and not on the gas, causing his car to come to a stop without hitting anyone or anything.

Trooper Fortino put handcuffs on this still-groggy fellow, placed him in our backseat, told him what was happening, asked a few preliminary questions, and then stepped away to talk to other authorities at the scene. It was truly surreal and profoundly awkward to be sitting silently in the front seat as this fellow slowly emerged from his stupor and began pouring out a full spectrum of emotions to me, a complete stranger. In a matter of minutes, he swung from contrition and frustration to anger and terror once it began to dawn on him the full consequences of this incident—possibly even losing his driver’s license and job. Whimpers, crying, and sniffling soon emanated from the backseat.

Once Trooper Fortino finished talking with a tow-truck operator who had shown up to take this man’s car to an impound lot, he drove us all to the same Tacoma office where he and I had met an hour earlier. By now it was 11:00 pm. In a typical DUI case, the entire intake and booking process takes about three hours from initial call to final paperwork. For this young man, it was relatively straightforward—this was his first DUI with no prior history, so he did not have to go to jail.

He insisted that he’d been sleep-deprived all week and that’s why he’d been driving erratically and passed out. He also said that he’d gone over to his friend’s house after work that evening and consumed only a couple of beers five hours earlier, so he couldn’t be drunk.

But when the final breathalyzer results showed a blood alcohol percentage well over the legal limit (caused by far more than the two beers he’d claimed), he became angry. Fierce denial set in. Until this moment, this fellow had been exceedingly respectful and courteous, almost obsequious, to Trooper Fortino. For a few heated minutes, that all changed, but soon the man gave up and returned to a polite but bewildered demeanor.

Eventually, Trooper Fortino called a cab to pick him up and take him home. It would be up to the courts and the Department of Licensing to decide his fate. In a way, this event was incredibly lucky—this man’s first legal DUI ended with an incident that did not result in injury, death, or property damage but still served as a wake-up call to a possibly emerging lifestyle problem. Still, FBI statistics show that the average drunk driver has driven drunk over 80 times before the first arrest.

That was to be our only DUI on Trooper Fortino’s shift that evening, but the night held a couple other adventures. We cruised a bar-heavy area notorious for intoxicated drivers heading out on the weekend but got called to an incident every officer dreads—a wrong-way driver on I-5. Such drivers are usually impaired, elderly, confused, or fleeing police (or a combination thereof), and it’s critical to get them off the road as soon as possible—every elapsing second can mean life or death for obvious reasons.

What’s it like to be in the front seat of a police cruiser traveling at high speed in the HOV lane with full lights flashing and sirens blaring? My adrenaline surged as I watched the speedometer climb to 114 mph as we barreled along I-5. I daresay I did some rabbit-kicking as we zoomed right up on the bumper of a car poking along ahead of us.

Its driver obviously hadn’t seen us coming in spite of our light-and-noise show. A backseat passenger swung his head to look back at us with alarm. Even then, the driver was absurdly slow to move over to the right. We shot past for a mile down the road, and then it happened again. Pay attention, people!

We arrived to find multiple police vehicles surrounding the wrong-way car, which was now stopped. But the driver had gotten out and run up a nearby steep embankment with a sagging chain-link fence at the top. At least half a dozen officers were scrambling through the tall grass, wildly waving flashlights as they frantically searched for the missing driver. As I watched several of them struggle to hack through the fence with wire-cutters, the chaotic scene suddenly reminded me—rather unfairly—of the Keystone Kops.

Enough police were swarming the place that there was nothing Trooper Fortino could do. Time to move on. I never did find out why the driver had been heading the wrong way.

It was now nearly 2:00 am. Turning around, we cruised on a deserted northbound I-5 through Tacoma. I marveled at how peaceful and empty it was—rarely have I ever seen this spot without immense construction and equally intense congestion, day or night. After turning onto a bypass ramp, we passed a car sitting in the middle of a lane with its lights off, oddly parked inside a row of orange construction cones—and saw two people outside the car moving cones around in the darkness.

Because we’d been going too fast to stop right then and back up, we had to travel several miles down the road before we could turn around and reach that same spot again seven minutes later. But this time, nothing was to be seen—no car, no people, and all the cones neatly back in place.

Was it a dream? Had we imagined things?

Just another night, another mystery, in the nocturnal shift of a WSP officer.