click on LOGO to return to HOME page
Don't Drink at Home--One Man's Experience
Some background and facts:
Keith Emerich, 44, the criminal (or victim depending on your politics) was arrested 23 years ago for DUI.
He has had no drug or alcohol related arrests or police encounters in these past 23 years.
His driving record is good.
He is steadily employed and his employer has never caught him drinking or smelling of alcohol on the job.
He claims to only drink at home except for occasionally having a few beers at a bar.
He went to the ER because of an irregular heartbeat.
He told the ER doctor that he drinks 6, sometimes 10 beers a day.
If he drinks 6 beers over a 4 hour period, his BAC would be under the current .08 definition of a drunk driver in PA.
The doctor recorded no evidence of him being drunk, no evidence that he had even been drinking when he was examined.
The doctor neither offered or recommended alcohol counseling for his drinking.
The doctor told him that drinking could be the cause of the irregular heartbeat.
In response to the doctor's diagnosis, Emerich now claims to only drink on weekends.
The doctor did not tell Emerich that he considered him an unsafe driver and was reporting him to the state.
The doctor reported Emerich's "confession" and the state revoked his driver's license indefinitely without a hearing.
According to the state, driving is a privilege, so the state feels it has the right to revoke that privilege at any time.
Emerich requested a hearing to get his license back.
At the hearing, no evidence was presented to contradict Emerich's statements about his old or new drinking habits.
Emerich was not allowed to confront his accuser, who remains anonymous.
No tests or evidence of unsafe driving were submitted.
Emerich refused alcohol counseling and therapy before the hearing, claiming it is not the state's business what he does at home.
The judge labeled him an alcoholic and therefore an unsafe driver. He also, with no evidence, said he lied about his drinking habits.
He ruled that Emerich could drive only with an ignition interlock on his car, installed & maintained at his expense.
The interlock will allow the car to be driven only if the driver's BAC level is below .025, about 1/3 the legal limit.
The interlock can remain on his car indefinitely, with no provision for reevaluating its necessity.
Contributions for this important appeal can be sent to Keith Emerich, 410 Chestnut Street, Lebanon, PA 17042
: Associated Press, Aug 17, 2004
|HARRISBURG, Pa. - A
judge ruled the state can suspend the driver's license of a man who told his doctor he
drank a six-pack of beer a day, but also ruled he can obtain restricted driving privileges
if he uses an ignition-interlock device in his car.
Keith Emerich said Tuesday he was "kind of stunned" by the ignition-interlock order, but had not decided whether he would appeal the Lebanon County judge's ruling. Emerich, 44, said his legal battle to reclaim his license has left him "just about tapped out" financially.
"I'm being treated like a criminal. The only crime I committed was getting sick and telling the doctor the truth," he said.
Emerich's lawyer said the ruling doesn't answer the question of how Emerich can ultimately prove to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation that he can drive safely.
"This is going to cost him $30 a month" to rent the ignition-interlock device, said attorney Horace Ehrgood. "I don't know how it solves the issue of his getting his license back until he convinces PennDOT that he's capable of driving."
Ignition-interlock devices, installed in the cars of repeat DUI offenders, force drivers to blow into a tube so their blood alcohol content can be measured. In Pennsylvania, if the driver's BAC is above .025 percent the car won't start; the legal limit is 0.08 percent.
The ruling by Judge Bradford H. Charles was issued Friday. Both sides said they received it late Monday.
Emerich, who lives in Lebanon, about 30 miles east of Harrisburg, received a notice from the department in April that his license was being recalled effective May 6 for medical reasons related to substance abuse.
He disclosed his drinking habit in February to doctors treating him at a hospital for an irregular heartbeat. A state law dating back to the 1960s requires doctors to report any physical or mental impairments in patients that could compromise their ability to drive safely.
Emerich has said he doesn't drive drunk. He contended in a petition to get his license back that he has since restricted his beer-drinking to weekends and that he has a mostly clean driving record, aside from a drunken-driving conviction when he was 21.
But Charles' ruling noted that while Emerich told his doctors that he only drinks beer at home, he testified during a July 29 hearing that he also drank in bars and admitted to driving after having "a few beers." Emerich also refused a doctor's request to seek alcoholism counseling or therapy, Charles said.
"We find that the abyss of Emerich's alcoholism was so cavernous that he would and/or could not moderate his alcohol consumption so that he could safely drive," Charles wrote.
Charles said he was ordering Emerich to obtain an ignition-interlock device because an indefinite license suspension would be unfair, given his more recent efforts to reduce his beer consumption.
Although the state's ignition-interlock law is designed to address cases in which motorists drive drunk or refuse to take blood-alcohol tests, it does not expressly prohibit the use of the device for motorists with medically restricted licenses, Charles said.
"An interlock device will ensure that Emerich does not drive under the influence of alcohol," Charles wrote.
PennDOT spokesman Anthony Haubert said the department was pleased that the license suspension was upheld, and that it would comply with Charles' ruling.
Here is another article with some more details:
Like most people, Keith Emerich thought he could tell a doctor anything.
So the 44-year-old print-shop pressman answered honestly when asked during an office visit whether he drank alcohol. Yes, he said, six to 10 Budweisers a day.
That candor cost Emerich, of Lebanon, Pa., his driver's license.
In a strict reading of a Pennsylvania law that requires physicians to report patients with conditions that might "impair the ability to control and safely operate" a vehicle, the doctor notified the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation of Emerich's appetite for brew.
With nothing more to go on than two check marks on a one-page questionnaire, PennDot revoked Emerich's license indefinitely.
Emerich thought it was a joke when the notice arrived in the mail last April Fool's Day. His driving record was pristine since a conviction for driving under the influence 23 years ago, and he said he does not mix drinking and driving.
"What I do in the privacy of my home is none of PennDot's business," said Emerich, who is appealing the agency's decision in Lebanon County Court. A ruling is expected within weeks.
Medical ethicists said the case presents a serious confidentiality issue, and a reason for patients to lie to their doctors about any alcohol and drug use.
They also point out the obvious: It does not necessarily follow that someone who consumes a six-pack a day drives under the influence.
"A man who has sex isn't a danger to drive - unless he's doing it in the car while he's on the road," said Norman Quist, publisher of the Journal of Clinical Ethics, a peer-reviewed quarterly. Taking Emerich's license has "got to be the wackiest application of a principle that I've ever heard of."
Pennsylvania is one of only six states - including New Jersey and Delaware - that require doctors to inform on patients who might be unfit to drive, typically due to such conditions as epilepsy or unstable diabetes. However, Pennsylvania's 28-year-old law goes further than the others by adding alcohol and drug abuse to the must-report list - without defining what constitutes abuse.
To encourage compliance, Pennsylvania guarantees doctors anonymity and immunity from patient lawsuits. If they fail to turn in dangerous drivers, the state is one of three nationwide that hold them liable for accident damages.
All told, each year, about 21,000 Pennsylvanians are reported to PennDot by doctors; 6,000 of them are relieved of their licenses. Last year, 230 were banned from the road because physicians notified the agency of alcohol or drug use.
In New Jersey, so few licenses are revoked for substance abuse that the state does not tally them, and those are taken away only on the recommendation of addiction counselors or police, according to the state Motor Vehicle Commission.
PennDot officials defend their state's tough standards, noting that drivers can get their licenses back if a doctor will vouch that they are fit to drive.
"We don't want to arbitrarily take someone's driving privilege away, but it is a privilege. And we have the authority to recall that privilege," said Joan Nissley, a PennDot spokeswoman. "Someone who has an alcohol or substance-abuse problem that would impair their driving ability would not be someone we want on the roads."
Peter J. Cohen, a doctor and lawyer who teaches substance-abuse law at Georgetown University in Washington, sees "a neat public policy question: Drinking a six-pack at night doesn't necessarily mean you are an alcoholic. But you could be. Everybody knows alcoholics can constitute a driving risk."
Pennsylvania lawmakers, he said, "decided to err on the side of safety."
In 1976, the legislature created the Medical Advisory Board, a volunteer panel of physicians and government officials who decided which conditions warranted the yanking of licenses. The board periodically reviews the guidelines, most recently last month; the alcohol category was again left unchanged.
Although the reporting net doubtless snares some hard-core alcoholics, others contend that their drinking does not meet the standard.
"I'm just a regular Joe Six-pack," Emerich said.
At six feet tall, 250 pounds, he is a big enough man to drink six Buds in two hours and keep his blood-alcohol level within the legal limit of 0.08 percent, by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's formula.
At a hearing here on July 29, Emerich testified that he did his drinking exclusively at night and on weekends, and that it had never caused him to pass out or miss a shift at work.
A toxicology report from his February visit to Good Samaritan Hospital showed that he was alcohol-free. Earlier that day, his family physician had detected an irregular heartbeat. That doctor, as well as those who subsequently examined Emerich at the hospital, advised him to cut back on beer for his heart's sake.
No one, he testified, suggested that he was not fit to drive or needed alcohol counseling.
PennDot, Emerich and his lawyer have not disclosed the names of the doctors involved. And the court records are sealed to protect the identity of the one who reported Emerich.
The one-page form had no written comments. There was a check at alcohol abuse, and one at yes in response to the question: "Do these conditions affect the patient's ability, from a medical standpoint only, to safely operate a motor vehicle?"
Edmund G. Howe calls it "a crapshoot."
"What one doc considers abuse might not seem as severe to another doc," said the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Clinical Ethics and a psychiatry professor at the Uniformed Services University at Bethesda, the U.S. military's medical school.
"I tend to think docs can't do two jobs and do them both well," Howe said. "They can't be adjuncts to the police force and at the same time form trusting relationships with patients."
Groups such as the American Medical Association have struggled to find the balance between public safety and patient confidentiality. The AMA advises doctors to report only drivers whose impairment poses "a clear risk to public safety" and to first discuss it with them.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving has not taken a position on mandatory reporting. The group's Pennsylvania treasurer, Nancy Oppedal, said there is merit in revoking licenses of diagnosed alcoholics, even if they do not have DUI convictions.
For Emerich, who is single and lives alone, four months without a car have had an impact. At the hearing, he said his Bud habit was all but gone, reduced to a six-pack a week, tops.
"I'm not saying that just to get my license back," he said afterward. "It's for my health."
Emerich hopes the judge returns his license. But if not, he said, he will install an ignition interlock (which requires a breath screening before operating the car), enter treatment, or do whatever else it takes to get back behind the wheel.
"It's a crazy law," he said. "But I can't have my dad drive me around forever."