The judge asked me what he could do beyond the mandatory 24-hour sentence to prevent my arrestee from driving while impaired again.
I thought for a minute, but only for a minute. As a traffic officer responsible for investigating fatal crashes, I have job security. Drivers continue to drive impaired, impaired drivers continue to tear apart families.
But I've thought before about the judge's question, and I have my answer ready.
Here's what I'd say:
Judge, I'd ask that the offender write a letter. An apology letter that tells no one in particular how he is sorry that he risked lives by driving impaired. A letter that might explain why he did what he did; why he felt it was OK to drive when he should have called for a ride. And Judge, I don't need to read it, and neither do you. Instead, I request that when he has penned his thoughts on paper, he fold that piece of paper up and tuck it away in his pocket.
What I further request is that you allow the offender to ride with me on patrol as I respond to that wreck that a patrol officer recognizes as one he shouldn't investigate. Because the average patrol officer who rolls up on the mangled vehicles and bodies, the debris, the blood and broken glass, finds this to be an overwhelming puzzle that he would struggle to piece back together.
I request that the arrestee ride with me as I respond to the crash scene, to be present as I photograph the scene, printing the visceral images to a permanent file. As if those images won't be permanently imprinted on the mind already. I know, because from memory I can easily remember more than 100 such scenes, recalling detail and feelings which could never be stored on a digital card.
As we walk through the scene -- in between the chaos of firefighters working to save souls, the machines cutting furiously away at steel trying to free the living, the screaming, the scared, the broken -- I want him beside me. I want him beside me as we examine the roadway, the vehicles, the occupants, the deceased, and when we interview the impaired driver at fault.
Judge, no doubt as we process the evidence, he will have difficulty processing the scene in his mind. Very few people realize the violence that is unleashed when two cars come together, or the frailty of the human body when exposed to thousands of pounds of kinetic energy wrapped in steel and glass. But I want his mind to attempt to process the scene for himself, as I process the scene for my investigation.
My investigation is not just for an insurance company or a sound bite on the evening news, but for the survivors. The family always wants to know details. And when my investigation is through, I may answer their questions based on scientific observations, measurements, and study. And in answering the questions for the family, maybe somehow I can make it easier for them -- provide a shoulder to cry on in a world that is crashing down around them.
This, Your Honor, is why I want the offender with me. We'll drive to the surviving family's home, knock on the door of a stranger we never met. We will ask the husband, the wife, the father, the mother, to please take a seat. We gently but firmly tell them the worst thing that anyone could ever hear. We watch the blood rush from their faces, we hear the screams, the soft sobs, the denial that we somehow went to the wrong house. And we say nothing, because nothing we say can help right now. But Your Honor, at some point they will ask me questions. I have always been able to provide the "how," the "when," the "where" and the "who." The one question I could never answer, though, is the "why."
At this point the offender will reach into his pocket and quietly read his apology letter to himself. He will begin to form the words. But before they become audible, something will stop him. As the family turns their gaze to him, waiting, hoping for a "why," the offender may stop. He will look into their faces and realize the letter he had penned doesn't answer the question. It sounds like an excuse, when an excuse just won't do. The best he can hope to muster, Your Honor, is an "I'm sorry."
Judge, this may not help that particular family. But forged into the mind of this DUI offender is the true understanding of society's problem. And burned to his memory is the scene that impaired driving paints--the crash, the aftermath. I hope Judge, with that memory fresh and tender as a open wound, the offender will think and maybe not offend any more.
Joe Warren is a traffic investigator for the Chattanooga Police Department.