Cops in some Ohio communities could ticket drivers more sober than themselves

By Travis Gettys
Monday, November 18, 2013 9:07 EDT
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Police officer writing a traffic citation while an unfortunate driver looks on from his car. Shutterstock
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Law enforcement officers in some Ohio communities are allowed to show up for work after drinking alcohol, arm themselves and drive around in their patrol cars, according to a newspaper analysis.

The (Middletown) Journal-News reported Sunday that some union contracts protect police officers, sheriff’s deputies and firefighters from disciplinary action if they work while slightly under the influence of alcohol.

Until recently, police in Lebanon, Ohio, were permitted to suck on a breath mint before they were tested for alcohol, but they’re still allowed to work and avoid discipline even if their blood-alcohol content is 0.04, about half the legal limit for most drivers in the state.

“When I came across that, I thought, ‘Wow, that’s different,’ ” said Lebanon Police Chief Jeff Mitchell, who successfully negotiated this summer to remove the breath mint clause from the contract but was unable to reduce the BAC limit to zero.

“Doesn’t that sound odd to you that you would have that in a contract with police?” Mitchell said, noting that breath mints can distort Breathalyzer results.

But the chief added that he’d never had to discipline an officer for using alcohol on the job in his two years with the department.

Drivers younger than 21 can be cited for drunken driving if their BAC is higher than 0.02, so they could theoretically be issued a ticket by an officer who was less sober than they were.

“It’s an interesting double standard,” said defense attorney Patrick Mulligan. “I don’t think it’s one the general public would appreciate.”

Mulligan said he represents about two or three clients each month who’ve been cited for driving with a BAC less than the 0.08 legal limit for most Ohio drivers.

Union officials say the contractual clauses are intended to protect workers from being wrongfully accused of drinking on the job.

“Certain medications, like cough syrup, have a degree of alcohol,” said Lt. Morgan Dallman, of the Butler County sheriff’s office. “If a deputy sheriff is suspected of having an alcoholic beverage, (medications) could register to around .05.”

Law enforcement officer in Butler County aren’t allowed to drink just before work or while on duty, but a supervisor must use a blood or urine test to prove impairment if a worker registers a 0.05 BAC.

An Ohio Highway Patrol spokeswoman said unions bargained for the alcohol clause many years ago, and it’s the same used in all state employee contracts, including state park police, clerks and teachers.

The 0.04 limit is based on federal law, which requires regulated entities to have a policy against drivers with a BAC of 0.02 to 0.04.

A study conducted earlier this year found similar policies in place for some law enforcement agencies in Illinois.

State troopers who tested under 0.04 would be pulled from duty and sent home, the spokeswoman said.

The union representative for Butler County’s detectives said he believes the policy remains in place because it’s never come up as an issue, noting that he’d never see a deputy tested for impairment while working in his 24 years with the sheriff’s office.

A fire department in Liberty Township, north of Columbus, bargained for its firefighters to be permitted to work until they’re legally drunk, and the township’s administrator said he agreed to the provision so the union would consent to a drug and alcohol policy.

But an anti-drunken driving activist said he was shocked by the provision.

“I can’t, for the life of me, think of why it would be so important to have an acceptable level of alcohol permissible,” said Doug Scoles, executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving Ohio. “If I’m a law enforcement officer, I would be the last person in the world who would want to have alcohol on my breath when I pull someone over.”

Watch this video posted online by The Journal-News:

[Image: Police officer writing a traffic citation while an unfortunate driver looks on from his car via Shutterstock]

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