THE BALLOON TEST
By Duane Preimsberger
Working an evening watch traffic car for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department had its good and bad moments. My beat, out of the Firestone Station, was in the City of Cudahy a small, blue collar enclave several miles southeast of the Los Angeles civic center. The city was square and each of its sides was about a mile and a half long, so getting lost in it was not easy. The main street was Atlantic Ave. running from Florence Ave south almost to Firestone Blvd. There were a few marginal businesses along it however; most of the town consisted of large multiple unit apartment complexes. Along with the apartments, there were some single-family homes sandwiched in between along the dozen or so side streets that crossed Atlantic Ave.
The busy times were from 3:30 to 6:30 PM when workers in the adjoining cities used Atlantic Ave. and a few side streets to get home from their jobs. Predictably, the slow moving traffic would frustrate a driver or two and a minor collision would result from tailgating or right of way disputes. Often, instead of pulling to the side of the street to exchange insurance information, the cars would be left where they’d collided and this blockage could jam traffic for miles. My job was to try to keep this kind of bottleneck from occurring.
After the rush had cleared the rest of the evening could be spent backing up the areas two man criminal car on hot calls, looking for bad guys who passed through the city, writing a few traffic tickets and arresting an occasional drunk driver who had made the unfortunate choice of coming through my area.
In the several months that I’d been working the assignment I’d only had to handle one fatality and it was a result of a drunk driver and it made such an impression on me that I had undertaken my own crusade to save other drunks from themselves in my area.
It had started as I was patrolling westbound on Clara Street at about 9 PM when I heard the sounds of the first collision that had occurred about a half block in front of me, then there was another and another. I soon found the source of the events. It was a tan Dodge sedan driven by an obviously drunk driver who was ricocheting from one side of the street to the other; striking parked cars as he went. I turned on my red lights and siren to try to get him to stop but he was oblivious to me behind him and he struck several more cars before coming to Atlantic Ave.
He ran the red light and narrowly avoided being struck by cross traffic. When he got midway into the intersection he initiated a wide sweeping turn and I thought he was going to travel south.
He didn’t; instead he changed direction again and headed east, he accelerated and jumped the curb on the eastside of Atlantic Ave. He drove across an empty parking lot and then head-on into a pillar in a six foot high cinder block wall. The energy released in the collision caused the rear of his Dodge to lift several feet into the air as dirt and debris flew everywhere.
When the car came down, my drunk driver was not behind the wheel and it took me a second or two to find him with my spotlight. The force of the impact had somehow catapulted him from behind the steering wheel across the car and had rammed his head and neck through the upper portion of the passenger side windshield. I quickly asked for fire department assistance to free him and then ran to his side to see what I could do to help. He was literally hanging from the hole that his head had made in the safety glass and after he’d gone through it, the plastic laminated glass had closed around his neck. He was both strangling and bleeding to death before my eyes.
I tried to lift his torso up from the inside of his car and at the same time staunch the flow of blood that was pulsing in a heart beat driven rhythmic stream from the terrible wound the closing glass had caused; but my efforts didn’t work. He was dead before the fire rescue truck and its crew arrived to help.
He lived in Cudahy and he had a cute young wife and three cute little kids. He’d never hug them or laugh with them or share ice cream cones or a trip to the beach. He’d never be a dad or a husband ever again. Telling the four of them that he had died was a job I was sorry to perform. Seeing him die and some of the aftermath of that occurrence made me realize what damage drunk drivers can do to themselves, their families and others- even to me.
That incident equated to a few really bad moments of my job.
A few weeks later much lighter moments occurred with another drunk driver in the same general area. That afternoon, I’d come to
work and had noticed that the McDonalds Hamburger Stand was having a grand opening. Folks dressed up like Ronald McDonald were handing out balloons on Atlantic Ave. Since I had 4 and 6 year-old daughters at home I stopped and asked if I could get a couple of balloons for them. One of the Ronalds was more than gracious and in addition to a couple of helium filled spheres that I put in my trunk, he gave me a handful of not yet inflated balloons that I stuck in my jacket pocket.
Later, in the early evening, I saw a car straddling the double yellow centerline southbound on Atlantic Ave. south of Clara Ave.
As I fell in behind him, I noticed that he was weaving slightly and riding his brake although traffic didn’t call for that kind of effort.
I pulled him over and he ended up parking about two feet from the west curb. As I approached the open driver-side window I could easily smell the odor of an alcoholic beverage and as I looked into the car I could see the floorboard littered with empty Budweiser
After the routine of obtaining his driver’s license and car registration; I asked him to get out of his car and accompany me to a level spot on the sidewalk so that I could administer a series of balance, dexterity and cognitive tests to see if he was too drunk to drive.
Mr. Spiller had a great deal of difficulty counting backwards from 60 or doing a recitation of the reverse alphabet from the letter G. He was unable to walk a straight line, touch his nose with his eyes closed and standing on one foot was an impossible task for him.
I’d satisfied myself that his blood-alcohol level would be way over the then permissible limit of .10 and told him that he was under arrest for drunk driving. Until that point, Spiller had been affable and cooperative but as soon as I told him what I was going to do, he became very argumentative.
“I know my God given constitutional rights and you’ve violated me, err, ummmmm, I mean them. The constitution says that before you can arrest me for drunk driving you gotta give me the balloon test. I know my rights and if you don’t lemme have the test your gonna have the biggest damn lawsuit on you you’ve ever seen and I’ll have your badge.”
“Have you ever seen a balloon test?”
“Well not personally, but I heard about ‘em on the TV. and such.
“O.K. Mr. Spiller, if I give you the balloon test and you fail it then can I take you to jail?”
“Bet your sweet aunt fanny you can, but I won’t fail it, I’ll pass it with flying colors.”
I reached into my jacket pocket and pulled out a very nice red Ronald McDonald balloon and quickly blew it up.
O.K. Mr. Spiller, please stand at attention and I will hold the balloon at the end of your nose and I want you to focus on it.
I watched Mr. Spiller stand semi-rigid, arms stiff at his sides as his eyes crossed and he got the most serious and ridiculous expression on his face that I’d seen in quite awhile.
“Do you see it?”
“Acourse I see it, ya got it right in fronts my nose.”
“O.K. sir, in just a few seconds I’m going to let it go and if you can grab it before it hits the ground and I can count to three it will count in your favor.”
“Let ‘er rip!”
And I did. As I counted quickly to three, Mr. Spiller went through some gyrations that reminded me of something called the Chicken Dance that I’d seen once at a German Oktoberfest. I had to hold him up by the back of his belt so he wouldn’t fall down chasing the balloon as it fluttered to the ground several feet from where he was.
“Come on gimme another chance, I can do it!”
“No sir, it’s a violation of my constitutional rights to administer the test to the same person on more than one occasion on the same evening. All the Supreme Court Justices agreed on that issue, perhaps you remember the case, it was Slam Dunkett versus the
Oregon State Police?”
I stored Mr. Spiller’s car and then drove him to the station where,
in the presence of the jailer, I administered a Breathalyzer test to Mr. Spiller; the reading was .19, at that time it was almost twice the legal limit for drunk driving.
Since his reading had been so high I was surprised when I received a subpoena from San Antonio Municipal Court commanding me to appear for a jury trial in Mr. Spiller’s case.
Since I was the people’s star witness, I was called to testify first and the Deputy District Attorney who was prosecuting the case questioned me and took me through a recitation of my observations and actions from the moment I observed him driving erratically until I arrested him. It was easy testimony and almost rote since I’d done it many times.
Mr. Spiller’s defense counsel asked me some questions about my training and experience and then he turned and started to head back to his chair. I thought I’d hear him say; “No further questions, your honor,” and I’d be excused from the courtroom.
Instead, he re-approached me as I sat in the witness chair and asked me a question I’d never prepared to answer. “What other test did you give my client on the night in question, Deputy?”
The jury members leaned forward in their chairs, awaiting my answer.
I knew I was sunk, Spiller would beat the rap, and I’d be in major trouble for having a little fun in the field and for making an arrest go down easier. I knew that my kind of balloon tests were not sanctioned by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
“Can I tell the whole story, sir?”
“As long as it’s pertinent to the case.”
I explained everything; how I’d come to be in possession of the balloons and that Mr. Spiller, not I, had brought the test up and had demanded it under what he thought were solid constitutional grounds.
I told the jury that all I wanted to do was to easily arrest and book Spiller and that humoring him and to a lesser degree me seemed like the right thing to do at the time and finally that his “failure” of my balloon test had absolutely nothing to do with his arrest. Absent it, he still would have gone to jail.
The Deputy District Attorney didn’t have any further questions so I got excused and as I walked by the D.D.A. table I whispered to him that I’d be waiting in the hallway to find out what happened with the case.
The jury wasn’t out very long and about an hour after I’d finished my ordeal on the witness stand, the D.D.A. come into the hallway, looking very solemn as he approached me. “O.K., Balloon Deputy,” he said and then he took a long pause. “The jury found your drunk driver guilty and the jury foreman said that they found your testimony not only very credible but very entertaining. A couple of them are still giggling and the judge has a fairly large smile as well, My guess is you’re off the hook, my office isn’t going to do anything to you. However, my advice is to play by the rules from now on and don’t invent any more new tests.”
Seconds later, Spiller’s attorney came my way and stuck out his hand for me to shake.
“Deputy, my job is to try to cloud up the issues of any arrest in anyway I can so as to get my client a not guilty verdict. I thought that would happen in this case but you turned around that jury with honest, forthright testimony about what you did and why. As a defense lawyer I’m not happy but as a citizen of Los Angeles County I'm glad you're out there doing the job that has to be done.
Congratulations and good luck.”
When I reported to work later that day there was a note in my mailbox to see Captain John Arruda, the station commander. So I walked over and knocked on his door.
“You’ll never guess what story I heard today at the local Chief’s luncheon. It was an incredible tale; one that focused around a new field sobriety test that is conducted using real balloons. Know anything about it?”
“Yes sir.” So I got to tell my story one more time and as I did Captain John broke into a large grin.
“You know, I ought to be mad at you but somehow or another I just can’t seem to get there. I’ll end this conversation with one more remark. DON’T EVER DO SOMETHING LIKE THAT AGAIN! DO YOU UNDERSTAND?”
I went to work that watch a happy guy. As I noted earlier, “there are some good moments and some bad ones.” This day, although a little rocky in the beginning, was definitely one of the gooder ones.”