Heads turned as Officer Dan Morlan strolled into Coin-Op Game Room around 9:15 p.m. last Thursday, flanked by five other members of the Sacramento Police Department’s entertainment team. He approached a table of four young men visiting from France.
Morlan asked the weeknight bar-hoppers a series of questions including their age, weight, city of residence, the number of drinks they had consumed and whether they felt like they could drive at that moment. Each of the men then blew into Morlan’s breathalyzer to see if their blood alcohol content, or BAC, was under the legal limit of .08 grams per deciliter.
They were buzzed. Nothing happened.
About once a month at bars around Sacramento, police walk in and offer to breathalyze customers — people who are under no obligation to do so, and won’t be cited or arrested if the test shows they’re intoxicated. In the program’s five-year existence, police say they’ve tested more than 5,000 participants.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
The breathalyzer exams, and accompanying cards with DUI facts, are purely educational — a way for drinkers to see how their current intake of alcohol lines up with legal limit to drive. There’s no penalty for being drunk in public without additional reckless behavior, and police insist they don’t monitor intoxicated people after identifying them as such, though Morlan also said he’s never seen anyone blow above .08 percent and drive off within sight of the officers conducting the tests.
“We are absolutely not here to get anybody in trouble,” Morlan said. “We’ve had the curious, ‘oh, what are you going to do, arrest me?’ Absolutely not. We want to teach you so you know that when you feel like this, you’re a 0.12 (BAC).”
Bars have to opt in as well. The entertainment team called several in midtown and downtown Sacramento on Thursday, only to be told they were empty or that the people in charge didn’t want media inside. Police spent most of their time in Coin-Op before heading over to the sparsely populated R15.
The cops were the most popular guys in the bar within minutes of entering both Coin-Op and R15. Lines of people waiting to be breathalyzed soon formed as partiers compared their BACs like trading cards, quantifying their stats with caveats such as “oh but I had a drink right before I blew.”
Even people sticking to water wanted to blow into their disposable plastic mouthpiece, just for the experience. All of it, Morlan said, was standard for the team’s monthly bar excursion.
“Usually the first one or two people that we talk to are a little skeptical … but once you see one or two people (blow), everyone wants to do it,” Morlan said. “We’ll actually run out of mouthpieces for our breathalyzers because we’ve been in here for an hour or two, passing them out to everybody.”
Two visibly intoxicated men in their 40s chose to be breathalyzed between ordering more beers and figuring out how Jump Bikes work. The men, who were visiting from Cleveland for a conference, blew identical 0.123 BAC marks – the highest BACs of the night.
“The way that they’re walking around, just their presence here, telling people ‘we’re not here to get you in trouble, we’re here to save you’ – that’s awesome,” said Jon Heasley, who was traveling with the men and blew a 0.088 himself. “If they would do this in Cleveland, it’d be awesome.”
Drunk driving led to 1,059 deaths in California in 2016, up 16 percent from the previous year, according to an annual state Office of Public Safety report. California Highway Patrol officers alone arrested more than 32,000 drivers on suspicion of DUI through July of this year, and a new law requires all servers to complete a state Alcohol Beverage Control service training course aims at cutting down on drunk driving before July 2021.
Erratic drivers with any alcohol in their system can be charged with DUI, but a charge is guaranteed if a person’s BAC is above 0.08. Suspects occasionally try to “trick” breathalyzers by putting gum or even pennies in their mouth before blowing, Sacramento Police Department spokesman Eddie Macaulay said. Neither works.
A range of BAC calculator apps available on smartphones aren’t very effective, either. While most run on some equation of weight, time and number of drinks, they don’t calibrate the amount of food eaten before drinking or strengths of mixed drinks served at bars.
The latter did Brandon Liebert in on Thursday night. A slim 33-year-old security guard at Punch Bowl Social, he got an industry hook-up on his mixed drinks at Coin-Op on Thursday night. After putting down three drinks over four hours, he blew a .12 — well above where he should be had the drinks been an ordinary strength.
“I’ve never had to take a breathalyzer before, so I’ve never had that opportunity (to formally gauge drunkenness),” Liebert said. “It’s good for people to have that self-participation, rather than ‘okay, we’re going to pull you over and it’s a bad experience.’”