Mo. sheriff's office makes buzzworthy offer for DWI enforcement training

The department conducted its first in-house wet lab as the DWI unit has seen a marked increase in drunken driving cases over the last two years


By Erin Heffernan
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

HILLSBORO, Mo. — The elevator door opened at the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office Tuesday afternoon, and a room full of deputies turned their heads to see volunteer Nerma Tulek proclaim her arrival.

"The drinkers are here!" Tulek said with a slight slur and a big smile.

Tulek and three other volunteers were at the sheriff's headquarters Tuesday to day drink in the name of public safety. They agreed to drink steadily for two hours to give deputies a chance to practice field sobriety tests on someone who is actually — and, in Tuesday's case, quite happily — intoxicated.

The training practice is known as a "wet lab," and has been a common practice at police academies for decades as a necessary part of Standardized Field Sobriety Testing certification, said Deputy Sheriff Nick Gamm, a member of the office's DWI unit who co-led the training Tuesday.

"For years we've used videos, and it just doesn't have the same effect," Gamm said. "When you get somebody in front of you that's actually intoxicated you can see it firsthand, and you really can't beat that type of training."

The department conducted its first in-house wet lab this week as the DWI unit has seen a marked increase in drunken driving cases over the last two years. The office made 556 DWI arrests in 2022, up significantly from 402 in 2021 and 358 in 2020.

"I truly feel in my heart that with every drunk that I arrest, I'm saving a life that night," Gamm said.

There was no shortage of those willing to heed the call of multiple free alcoholic beverages.

"We buy, you drink," the sheriff's office posted on social media in a call for volunteers. (They later clarified no tax dollars were used for the booze.) The post had more than 300 comments full of volunteers in less than 20 minutes.

"My phone battery drained a good 15% within 10 minutes of that hitting social media," Gamm said.

Deputies began training before the drinkers arrived Tuesday, focusing on the small ways a DWI case can fall apart if tests are not conducted properly: A Sharpie on a blood sample could smudge; a defense attorney could argue the smell of alcohol came from someone else in the car; or a police report could not contain enough information to justify the basis for an arrest.

"It's important to remember: Drinkers sometimes have the inability to remain silent," Gamm said. "If they act a fool, write that in your report because that can help you in court."

The volunteers arrived around noon with empty stomachs, ready to drink.

Kyle Weiss, a former southern Missouri police officer who now works in real estate, picked Strongbow hard cider as his drink of choice. He said he volunteered because he knows how critical it is to get every step of field sobriety tests right.

"Defense attorneys will tear you up on the stand if you're not absolutely perfect in the field," Weiss said.

Next to him stood fellow volunteer Tim Pudlowski, a defense attorney specializing in DWI cases with The Lowery Law Firm.

Pudlowski, who chose Urban Chestnut's Zwickel beer Tuesday, said he wanted to help public safety, but also welcomed the chance to be on the intoxicated end of the test.

"I can use it to my advantage," he said before pointing to a fellow volunteer before the drinking commenced: "I don't think either of us are going to be combative today."

DWI unit member Deputy Sheriff Shawn Loness supervised and calculated how much each volunteer would need to drink over two hours to surpass the legal limit to drive, based on factors such as weight and sex. The goal was a blood-alcohol content around 0.10, just above the legal limit of 0.08.

He asked the volunteers to tell him when they reached the point where they would "give up their keys," or felt drunk enough to decide not to drive.

Tulek drank her portion of UV Blue Vodka the fastest in the group and lasted less than a half-hour before she said she wouldn't be able to drive.

Her breathalyzer showed a blood-alcohol content of 0.05.

"That's common," Loness said. "People in wet labs usually know they're not safe to drive way before they get to .08."

Slowly but surely, all but one of the drinkers passed the legal limit over the next two hours of chatting and drinking. With reddened faces, watery eyes and a jolly demeanor, the volunteers were then carefully herded up to a training room to undergo a series of tests.

[RELATED: DWI investigations: How officers can capitalize on the driver interview to gather evidence]

Officers asked the drinkers to follow a finger moving horizontally and vertically with their eyes. The officers were searching for nystagmus, an involuntary bouncing eye movement that is a telltale sign of drunkenness for police.

Loness said the chance for deputies to spot nystagmus is one of the most important reasons for the wet labs, as you can't re-create it sober.

The defense attorney, Pudlowski, then nearly seven beers in, debated DWI case law with the deputies as he completed his test. The vodka drinker, Tulek, produced a stream of giggles during hers.

Next came the walk and balance tests. Each drinker was asked to walk nine steps forward, turn and come back, then balance on one leg.

Tulek swayed with each step, but celebrated each time she reached nine with a: "Woo!"

"We got a good example of every kind of drunk here today," Gamm told the trainees. "Except an angry drunk, which is a good thing."

As the training concluded, Loness and Gamm polled the deputies on their conclusions.

All four, had they been driving, would be under arrest.

Fortunately, each was provided a safe ride home instead.

NEXT: DWI investigations: Officers can enhance their interdiction skills starting with ‘vehicle in motion’ observations

(c)2023 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
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McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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