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WSP’s Mobile Impaired Driving Unit visits Tulalip

State Rep. Hans Dunshee and Lt. Robert Sharpe, commander of the Washington State Patrol’s Impaired Driving Section, discuss some of the finer points of the WSP’s Mobile Impaired Driving Unit on May 1. - Kirk Boxleitner
State Rep. Hans Dunshee and Lt. Robert Sharpe, commander of the Washington State Patrol’s Impaired Driving Section, discuss some of the finer points of the WSP’s Mobile Impaired Driving Unit on May 1.
— image credit: Kirk Boxleitner

TULALIP — The Washington State Patrol’s Mobile Impaired Driving Unit made an appearance at the WSP’s Driving Symposium at the Tulalip Resort Hotel and Casino on Thursday, May 1, during which elected officials and community members alike received a full tour of the 36-foot-long “one-stop shop,” in the words of Washington State Patrol Sgt. Brandon Villanti.

“We decide where to send it based on requests from other agencies who coordinate with the State Patrol,” Villanti said, as he escorted state Rep. Hans Dunshee and a trio of local insurance agents into the big rig. “It tends to coincide with holidays or other big events. We’ll be sending it to Spokane for Hoopfest, and we’ve sent it to Wenatchee for the Apple Blossom Festival, Seattle for Seafair and Ocean Park for the Rod Run.”

The MIDU includes not only three separate breathalyzer machines, so that three different suspects can be tested at the same time, but it also has two holding cells in the back, to maintain secure custody of suspects who are waiting their turn.

The computers include three terminals in back, for officers to file reports and search warrants, as well as a command terminal closer to the front, and a dispatch terminal, the latter of which can be utilized as an incident command center, since it links up to large monitors, can burn off DVD copies of footage and can broadcast real-time video signals from law enforcement and emergency response vehicles, such as planes being used to fight forest fires.

“We can even do blood draws from here,” Villanti said. “We send the mobile unit to about 60-80 events a year, as needed.”

“The time that it takes an officer to process a DUI is time that they could be spending out on the road, pulling over another DUI,” said Lt. Robert Sharpe, commander of the Washington State Patrol’s Impaired Driving Section. “With the mobile unit, we’ve actually had overlapping arrests, where officers will pull over one driver for DUI, bring him in to be processed, go back out on the road, and bring back another DUI driver before the first one has even been processed yet. We had one officer who got four DUIs in a single night, which is unheard of.”

“It’s especially important because, with DUIs, you’re losing your evidence by the minute,” Villanti said. “Their bodies are metabolizing the drugs and alcohol, and while some drugs stay in your system longer, others are converted to the point that you can’t necessarily prove impairment.”

That being said, Villanti noted that it’s not uncommon to arrest drivers for DUI even if they blow less than a .08 BAC on their breathalyzer tests, because he’s arresting them for showing signs of impairment on the road.

“There are a lot of handheld breathalyzers that are sold in stores, which are pretty fake,” Sharpe said. “Even the FST breathalyzer, which is fairly accurate, isn’t admissible in court.”

“Because handheld breathalyzers aren’t calibrated by technicians,” Washington State Patrol Sgt. JoAnn Buettner said.

“Bottom line, if you’re relying on a handheld breathalyzer to tell you whether you’re sober or not, you’re probably drunk,” Sharpe said.

Marysville State Farm Insurance agents Luis Sanchez, Tom Paul and Brian Pepelnjak were interested to hear that as many as 130 boaters at a time have been processed for boating under the influence through the MIDU at Seafair.

“If people apply for boating insurance, we often look at their driving records,” Paul said. “If they’ve done a lot of speeding, we assume it might carry over into their boating habits.”

“Many of the drunk boaters we’ve brought in were already on probation for DUI, but they thought it was okay if they did it in a boat,” Sharpe said. “That’s why BUI has been changed to more closely reflect DUI. It won’t affect your driver’s license like a DUI will, but it’s gone from being a misdemeanor to being a gross misdemeanor. People don’t realize that you can be charged with DUI if you’re driving any motorized vehicle under the influence, including a motorized wheelchair.”

Sharpe concluded the tour by tentatively predicting that the state’s breathalyzers will be replaced with newer models by the end of the year, which is needed since the Washington State Patrol conducts the breathalyzer tests for all city ,county and state agencies.

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