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Street DUI checks will hit North Oakland next

on November 17, 2008


Nov. 16–International Boulevard and 68th Street was a big spectacle Friday night. Orange cones, squad cars, and floodlights took over the southbound side of International. Tow trucks idled around the corner. Cops waved traffic through with big red flashlights, looking like authoritarian movie theater ushers, stopping every fifth car to check for driver’s licenses and any signs of intoxication. An audience of at least fifty people from the neighborhood watched from across the street, most dressed in black: they had just left a funeral at CP Bannon mortuary, on International and 69th, and weren’t in a hurry to be anywhere.

“We become the show, wherever we go,” said Oakland Police Lieutenant Anthony Banks. “We affect whatever goes on around here. Word gets out we’re in the neighborhood.”

The DUI checkpoint show will be coming to an intersection near you, on December 12, somewhere along the North Oakland and Berkeley border. While the casual, wine-with-dinner drinker and driver might do well to mark that date on the calendar and avoid getting behind the wheel at all, it’s worth revisiting that fuzzy, ill-understood question of just how much drinking it does take to meet the fateful 0.08% blood alcohol limit.

Until portable breathalyzers become cheap enough to be practical (they’re going for $100 and up at, drinkers will just have to ballpark it.

The biggest factor to consider is your weight. A man weighing 200 pounds could conceivably drink three times the amount of alcohol as a 115-pound person and reach the same blood alcohol level. To see where you fit in, the DMV offers this chart (  as a guide. There are plenty of variances, but generally the rule of one drink (defined as a “1 ½-ounce shot of 80-proof liquor, a 5-ounce glass of 12% wine, or a 12-ounce glass of 5% beer”) per hour is fairly safe.

When a drive passes through a checkpoint or is being pulled over, police will be looking for “objective symptoms” of intoxication, like any smell of alcohol, bloodshot or watery eyes, or difficulty retrieving a driver’s license. At a checkpoint, if officers suspect something they’ll have the driver pull off to the side, where another officer continues investigating. They’ll usually start by shining a flashlight in the driver’s eye, which, in addition to annoying the person, will allow the officer to gauge the eye’s response: if the pupil doesn’t contract much when the light hits it, that is a sign of intoxication.

The second thing they’ll do with the flashlight is the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus test, which involves having the driver follow the flashlight from side to side. Nystagmus is the rapid shaking of the eye—it looks like it’s vibrating—that will usually begin when the eye is pointing to the side past 45 degrees; an intoxicated person will typically experience nystagmus before reaching that point.   While this may seem unscientific in light of the breathalyzers and blood tests that are available, nystagmus experts can offer their observations as evidence in court. “The CHP is super good at this,” Banks said. “They’ll look at their eyes and tell you the person’s BAC level.”
After the flashlight treatment, drivers will be subjected to the field sobriety test. There’s the stand-on-one-foot-with-the-other-extended-forward; and then the classic walk-in-a-straight line, one foot directly in front of the other, for nine steps. There’s some controversy over whether field sobriety tests are truly useful—detractors claim that many of the things asked of drivers can be difficult for some people to do while sober. This might be worth people trying their own, before one ends up having to do it while buzzed on the side of the street as ten cops and fifty gawkers watch.

The main action for a DUI checkpoint is not catching intoxicated drivers, but catching people with suspended licenses or no licenses at all. On a typical checkpoint night, Lt. Banks said they might find up to 50 such people, while arresting only 5 or 6 people for DUI. “Though when we do this at Raider games, it’s 25 to 30,” he said.||||||||||||||||||||

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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