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Drunken drivers can't just say 'no' to test

Beaverton Police launch no-refusal program so drivers can't skip blood alcohol testing


COURTESY KOIN 6 - The Beaverton Police Department has instituted a new program to deal with drivers who refuse to take breath tests when pulled over for suspicion of DUII.Officer Nick Coplin has been pulling over drunken drivers in Beaverton for more than a decade.

Like his counterparts across the country, Coplin and his fellow Beaverton Police Department officers increasingly have been met with drivers who refuse to take the ubiquitous breath test that measures blood alcohol content in the belief that it will improve their odds of beating a driving under the influence conviction.

Now the city’s police force has a new message for people who drive through Beaverton after drinking too much: Officers aren’t taking “no” for an answer.

In November, Beaverton’s police and municipal court departments launched a no-refusal policy that instructs officers to call a city judge at any hour asking for a search warrant to take a sample of the unwilling driver’s blood. Those samples get sent to the Oregon State Crime Lab for BAC results, which Coplin said can be more difficult to dispute in court than breath tests.

“One of our ultimate goals of this is to reduce the overall DUIIs in Beaverton,” which in turn can cut down on serious property damage, injuries and deaths, Coplin said. “It seems like there’s more impaired drivers.”

In fact, after years of decline, Oregon traffic fatalities have increased sharply the last couple of years. Historically, about 40 percent of traffic deaths are blamed on intoxicated drivers, he added.

In 2014, Beaverton officers arrested 361 intoxicated drivers, with 23.5 percent of them refusing the breath test. The city’s officers arrested 17 percent more impaired drivers last year - 423 total DUII counts in 2015 - while taking part in the National Traffic Safety Campaign. But a mid-year switch of computer records systems means they don’t have comparable data.

Drivers, especially those who already have been arrested for DUII before and may no longer be eligible for diversion programs that can erase a first conviction, have been refusing breath tests at a rate of 20 percent to 25 percent in recent years, even though refusing can lead to longer license suspensions and higher fines, Coplin said.

“DUII cases tend to go to court at a higher rate than other crimes,” typically costing hundreds and even thousands of dollars in additional staff time for officers and others needed in the courtroom, Coplin said. “Our goal is to cut down on that.”

The reason drivers take the risk is that historically they do see slightly better odds of beating the rap if they refuse a breath test, Coplin said. Drivers taking that test are convicted about 90 percent of the time. Without physical evidence such as BAC results, conviction rates are closer to 80 percent. Some attorneys have an even higher rate of acquittal, he said.

Although too few cases have pushed through the system to produce reliable data, Coplin’s experience tells him that it’s possible that prosecutions using blood-draw BACs showing impairment will be even more effective, combining the hard evidence with a defendant who might appear guilty to a judge or jury after avoiding the roadside test.

“That’s a hard case to defend in court,” he said.

Beaverton officers had 11 drivers refuse to take breath tests in November and December, resulting in blood draws in every case during the program’s opening months.

“We haven’t missed a judge yet,” Coplin said.

The first case to work to a conclusion ended with a plea after the crime lab returned results showing intoxication rather than proceeding to trial, Coplin said.

Coplin started putting together a streamlined no-refusal program last year after attending a conference where he learned about the Springfield Police Department’s no-refusal weekends and its effect in boosting DUII enforcement.

But instead of just a weekend, he brought the idea of running the program full-time to command staff and Municipal Court Judge John Mercer. They all signed off on it.

“It was a high priority to the Beaverton Police Department,” Mercer said of the agency’s desire to aggressively combat drunken driving. “That’s a good reputation to have.”

Previously, warrants for blood draws only occurred for serious felony cases, in large part because the process could take three to five hours, often involving officers driving to a judge’s house in the middle of the night for a physical warrant instead of the quick telephone call and faxed documents the new program uses to secure a warrant.

The department received an Oregon Department of Transportation grant that pays for the only new cost, which is an agreement with Metro West Ambulance to provide a trained medical staff member to quickly respond to police headquarters to conduct blood draws, Coplin said.

“So far, it feels like it’s working well,” he said. “We want to get the word out that Beaverton is a no-refusal city.”