It had been a long week, so he and a few co-workers unwound at a bar in Alexandria, Virginia, just outside of Washington.
One beer led to two, which led to three, which led to a lot more and eventually led to closing time.
He didn’t feel all that drunk, though, so he climbed into his car and headed home, driving carefully to avoid attracting the attention of Alexandria’s cops.
But he wasn’t careful enough and the flashing red and blue lights in his rear-view told him he was in trouble.
The cop was polite, but firm, as she told him to get out of his car.
“Sir,” she said. “Have you been drinking?”
“How much have you had.”
“A few beers.”
“Sir, I’m going to give you what we call a field sobriety test. Do I have your permission?”
In Virginia, refusing a sobriety test means immediate suspension of your driver’s license. He gave permission.
“Sir, I’m going to ask you to count backwards from 100. Can you do that?”
He tried once, but stumbled between 96 and 95. Stupid. He tried again and got as far as 93.
“Sir, I’m going to give you a field breathalyzer test. This is only an advisory test. If you test over the legal limit, we will take you to the station for a full test. Do you understand?”
He nodded and blew into the tube.
“Sir, you registered a point one-nine. That is over the legal limit.” She handcuffed him, put him in the back of the police car and called for a tow truck for his Mercedes.
At the Alexandria police station, a technician gave him another breathalyzer test. This time it came up .15, still well over Virginia’s limit. He was formally charged with DUI, driving under the influence.
On any given night in the D.C. Metro area, more than 200 people are arrested for DUI. Some are caught at sobriety checkpoints, some because a cop sees them driving erratically and some because they are driving too carefully and the cop has a hunch.
Not too many years ago, a DUI stop meant a stern lecture and a ride home. No more. Thanks to the lobbying efforts of groups like MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving), DUI means arrest and the beginning a long period of penance with the bureaucracy.
Four hours later, as daylight was approaching, he walked out of the police station in the custody of his best friend (a magistrate had refused to release him to his wife. It had to be in the custody of another man). He was scheduled for arraignment for the next day. The magistrate suggested he get a lawyer.
At 9:30 a.m., he met with a lawyer suggested by a friend.
“You got a mess on your hands,” the lawyer said. “A .15 means your license is gone for six months. With luck, I can get you a restricted license to drive to and from work and to and from ASAP.”
“Alcohol Safety Action Program. You’ll have to attend it once a week for at least six weeks, maybe longer. The key is to get you into it before your trial. It may give you brownie points with the judge. I’ll need everything I can get to keep you out of jail.”
“Jail? I’ve never even had a speeding ticket.”
“Doesn’t matter. The judges here believe in jail time for first offenses.”
He walked out in a daze, after giving the lawyer a $2,000 fee in advance.
The following week, he attended his first ASAP meeting in a windowless room on Mount Vernon Avenue in Alexandria.
“Let’s get one thing straight,” the counselor said. “You’re here because you have a problem with alcohol. The fact that you got caught means you’ve got a problem. Nobody gets caught the first time they drive drunk. All of you have gotten away with drunk driving dozens of times.”
He was the only one in the class who hadn’t been tried yet, so he still had a drivers’ license. He gave one of the other attendees a ride home.
“Figured this thing out yet?”
“What do you mean.”
“The only way you’ll get out of this group thing in six weeks is to go the AA (Alcohol Anonymous) route and stand up and say you’re an alcoholic.”
“But I’m not an alcoholic.”
“Don’t matter. Play the game.”
“Are you sure.”
“Yep. I’ve been through this before. This is my third DUI.”
Three weeks later, he stood before the judge in Alexandria and pled guilty.
“That will be a $500 fine and six months suspension of your license,” the judge said. “Thirty days outright suspension and five months restricted.” It meant 30 days of walking and five months of driving only to and from work and to ASAP.
“By the way,” the judge said. “The only reason I’m not throwing you in jail is because you voluntarily entered ASAP.”
He caught a cab to his office and took the subway the rest of the month.
Three weeks later, the ASAP counselor asked him to stay after the session.
“Have you gone to AA yet?”
“I’m not an alcoholic.”
“We call that denial around here. As you know, I have to make a report to the judge after six weeks. I’m recommending another eight weeks of ASAP.”
Nobody keeps exact statistics on just how many AA groups there are worldwide, but an alcoholism counselor in the Washington area says the Nation’s Capitol probably has more groups per capita than any other city in the U.S.
There are four active AA groups within the Pentagon alone.
“It has a lot to do with the stress in this town,” he says. “People work hard and they party equally hard. This is a town that runs on adrenaline and the need to come down. Booze helps, but it can hurt more than it helps.”
A week later, he got a certified letter from the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles telling him to report to a license center for a restricted license. He went down the next day. The license had a big red “ASAP” stamped on the front.
The following week, another certified letter arrived. The license plates for both his cars were hereby revoked and he could reinstate them only after paying $250 fee for each car and providing proof of SR-22 insurance.
He called his insurance agent. What’s an SR-22?
“That’s assigned risk insurance. Did you get a DUI?”
“Sorry to hear that. You’ll be getting a letter from our company shortly announcing that we’re canceling your insurance.”
“But I’ve never had a claim in the 19 years that I’ve paid insurance to you.”
“Doesn’t matter. A DUI means you’re out.”
“What about this SR-22 stuff?”
“We don’t write SR-22 policies, but I can recommend an agent who does.”
“What will it cost.”
Two days later, he sat in the crowded outer office of an agency that specialized in SR-22 claims. Business was booming.
The agent looked over his application.
“You’ve got a Mercedes and a BMW?”
“Hope you’ve got good credit. You’re going to have to finance this policy.”
“The premiums for these cars will be $3100.”
“Every six months.”
He walked out in another daze. After four days of calling, he found one agency that would write an SR-22 policy for $2700 every six months.
“What if I parked one of the cars?”
“As long as it’s licensed, it has to be insured.”
He went back to his original insurance agent.
“Look goddamnit, I’ve paid your company a lot of money over the last 19 years and never asked for anything. I need help here.”
The agent closed his office door.
“I didn’t give you this advice, but here’s what you do. Surrender the plates to one car and park it. Put the other car in your company’s name and list your wife as the only driver. Then get a junker for you and put the SR-22 on that. That’s your only hope. You can’t drive it. Not as long as the SR-22 is in effect.”
That’s what he did. The Mercedes remains parked, without license plates. His wife drives the “company” BMW. He drives a 71 Chevy with liability-only SR-22 insurance that cost $714 every six months.
He finished the second six weeks of ASAP four months ago and was released from the program after lying about attending an AA meeting and standing up in front of the group and saying he’s an alcoholic.
“I’m not an alcoholic,” he claims. “I still drink. I just don’t drive when I drink.”
Tonya is a counselor for ASAP and knows that people lie to get out of the program.
“There’s not a lot we can do. We can’t follow them around and make sure they go to meetings. But I can tell you one thing. Those who lie will be back in the program because they will drink and drive again. If they don’t get killed, we’ll see them again.”
All restrictions against his license were lifted last month and he can now drive whenever he pleases, but it is still the Chevy, not the Mercedes. Virginia will keep the SR-22 restriction on his license for another 29 months. After that, he will have to shop for a company that will give affordable car insurance to a driver with a DUI on his record.
That DUI will stay on his Virginia driving record for 10 years. If he’s convicted for a second offense, it means automatic jail time and license revocation for at least a year, most likely longer.
He has a new bumper sticker on the Chevy. It says “DAMM” and stands, he says, for “Drunks Against Mad Mothers.”
He also has a framed American Express receipt hanging in his office, his share of the bar bill for that night in Alexandria eight months ago. The charge was $19.33.
“That nineteen bucks has cost me about $9,000 over the last eight months,” he said. “It was the most expensive night of drinking of my life.”