Is the cost of a cab ride worth the risk?

There is no such thing as a simple DUI for EMS providers

By David J. Givot

This life continues to show me things I just don't understand. For example, a morbidly obese cardiologist or a pulmonologist smoking at the back door of the hospital; some things that are just so counterintuitive that they defy reason. Nevertheless, we all see them on a daily basis and we either ignore it or roll our eyes and shake our heads and remark about how idiotic some people can be, especially when they know better.

Recently there was a story in the news about a family who couldn't swim but had a picnic on a riverfront beach...six of them drowned. While the story itself is tragic beyond comprehension, one can't help but wonder what made playing in a river a good idea to a group of non-swimmers.

The same is inexplicably true of EMS providers. As more and more paramedics, EMTs, firefighters, nurses, and police officers learn that there is an attorney committed to defending them, my own call volume is increasing with calls for help; calls that stem from situations where each one of them knew better. That is to say, I have a client...

Can a paramedic get a DUI?
"Can the [California] EMS Authority yank my paramedic license for getting a DUI?" asked the nervous caller one Sunday morning not too long ago. My response was quick and brilliant, "Um... yes." The caller proceeded to tell me a story about how he was out last night with friends, they were at a bar, and they had just a few drinks before driving home — though he felt fine.

The story ends with a traffic stop, handcuffs, and a pending court appearance. As always, I assessed the facts and circumstances, asked specific questions to form my own differential diagnosis as to viable defenses, and began to formulate a strategy to minimize the impact on this young paramedic's life. I will handle it legally and he will probably be just fine...eventually.

This DUI client is generally no different than any of the others I have, with one terrific exception: this one should know better, which brings me back to my original assertion: I just don't understand things that are so counterintuitive that they defy reason.

How many DUI accidents does one EMS provider have to handle before he or she realizes that "feeling fine" after drinking is not a reasonable standard of measuring intoxication? How many shattered lives does a provider need to see before calling a cab as a better alternative?

A scary scenario
Inasmuch as the blood you have washed from your hands and scrubbed from the ambulance floor does not seem to be a sufficient deterrent, let me tell you what happens afterward.

You are out and about with some friends. You have a few drinks. You don't feel too buzzed, but you are comfortable. You drink water for an hour or so before you drive (or, more humorously, coffee) to wash away the delicate inebriation. As you start the car, you glance in the mirror, tug your eyelids — not too red — and off you go. Home is only 5 minutes away on side streets. No problem.

The red and blue lights in your rearview mirror come as a terrifying surprise because you did not know you had a tail-light out or that your turn-signal was broken or that the light for your license plate was out — or whatever. Suddenly your heart is pounding in an otherwise empty chest and scenarios run through your mind too quickly to contemplate. Your fingers and hands feel very weak as you roll down the window. Your ace in the hole, should things get ugly, please let it be a cop I know...or one that will give professional courtesy because I am in EMS. Neither turns out to be the case.

Asking for your license and registration becomes mere formality when he smells the faint "odor of an alcoholic beverage emitting from your breath and person" (that's how he will write it in the report.) "Have you had anything to drink tonight?" Do you tell the truth? Lie? Tell the truth? Lie?

The immediate confusion about how to answer sends you into autopilot. "Just a couple, much earlier." In your mind the answer is perfect; you explained the smell, but eliminated the possibility that you are under the influence... because it was much earlier. That balloon is quickly burst when he asks you to step out of the car. You quickly play the rest of the cards in your imaginary deck, before he initiates sobriety tests. Of course he is unfazed by any of the names you drop and he is not the least bit interested in the fact that you are a paramedic, EMT, or whatever.

The sobriety tests
The sobriety tests do not differentiate between fear and intoxication, so before you know it, you are handcuffed, your car is being towed, and you are headed for fingerprinting, photographing, and an overnight stay with some new friends — some, perhaps, more interested in you than others.

Oh, the chemical blood-alcohol test is 0.09, just barely above the legal limit in California. Before you get too excited, the mathematics on a 0.09 an hour after the arrest equals a significantly higher level at the time of driving.

The next morning, you are released either on bail or on your own promise to appear for your court hearing. Once out, you either pay the $300 to $500 to get your car out of impound or you leave it there to rack up additional $99+ per day fees. You search for lawyers on the Internet, but none answer on a Sunday (except me — I answer every day) and when you do get through you see that attorney's fees will run anywhere from $3,500 to $10,000 or more and that defense attorney's don't like payment plans.

The price you might have to pay
In California, you discover that you have only 10 days to request a hearing from the DMV to try and avoid having your license suspended and you learn that there is a minimum absolute suspension of 30 days. Most other states have a similar procedure.

If you are a paramedic in California, you check your mail a week or so later to find a letter from the State EMS Authority telling you that they know about the arrest and you have a short period of time to explain the situation (in violation of your 5th Amendment right to remain silent) and submit a notice of defense. Failure to respond will result in action against your license, as will admitting guilt, as will lying about it, etc. Most other EMS Agencies across the United States have similar requirements. ...and yes, ,lawyers charge for that too.

Then there is your employer. You get to tell the people who trust you with vehicles and equipment and sensitive patient information — and human lives, that you are a very poor decision-maker. But you can't tell them about the case because your lawyer told you not to discuss the case; your employer demands an explanation or you will face discipline.

Assuming there are no loopholes through which to get out from under this nightmare, you are stuck.

When all is said and done, that five minute drive home — maybe $10 to $15 in a cab — will have cost you a night in jail, a suspended driver's license, employer discipline, a damaged reputation, and roughly $7,000 or more in fees and fines and other related expenses. And, depending on your level of licensure, possibly even an action against your license to practice.

Next time you find yourself with the choice between a $10 or $20 or even $100 cab ride home versus the risk of a DUI, what's it going to be?

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