An Examination of the DUI Arrest in the Movie North By Northwest

Posted by Richard Lawson | May 31, 2017 | 0 Comments

I went on a Turner Classic Movie Marathon this holiday weekend and had a chance to watch North by Northwest.

In the movie, Cary Grant was mistaken for a secret agent.  His "enemies" abducted him and tried to kill him by forcibly intoxicating him and putting him in a vehicle that was to be driven off the roadway. 

When he managed to avoid running off the road, he was pulled over for DUI.  What happened next was fascinating.  

In today's world, police officers do what amounts to medical tests on suspected drunk drivers.  They are trained to interpret field sobriety tests and other physical manifestations of impairment.  As I have written before, the tests police officers perform are often misinterpreted because of the confirmation bias.  The tests are used to try to confirm what the police officer already suspects.

The other problem is that field sobriety tests are in fact medical tests.  For example, the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus test is used by doctors to help interpret stroke or head injury, yet we teach police officers in a 24-hour course how to interpret these tests to determine whether a person is under the influence of alcohol or drugs.  The absurdity that a police officer can learn in 24 hours something that takes a physician four years of medical school and a four-year residency is comical.  

What was interesting in the movie is that when Cary Grant was arrested on suspicion of DUI he was brought to the police station and evaluated by a medical doctor.  What we do today is for the convenience of the police.  The government does not care if a mistake is occasionally made.  If the government cared, then anyone accused of a DUI would be examined by a doctor. 

Yes, the police get it right most of the time.  However, many medical conditions can mimic intoxication.  It is a shame that today we often give less benefit of the doubt than we gave to people in the 1950s.  

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Richard Lawson

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