Officer Armando Plascencia
Photos Daniel DiPinto
Officer Armando Plascencia
Photos Daniel DiPinto
Officer Armando Plascencia
Photos Daniel DiPinto
FEATURED IN LEADERSHIP
Officer Armando Plascencia in an interview with Amy Clark, Associate Editor
Earlier this year, Plascencia received awards from the local and state chapters of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), and he earned the Medal of Merit and Employee of the Year from the OPD for what he matter-of-factly calls “doing my job.”
A 12-year veteran of police work, Plascencia, 35, has served as a full-time police officer in the OPD for almost 10 years. He’s worked on the gang-investigation and DUI teams, and this year he was promoted to the motorcycle unit.
Although he no longer works on the DUI task force, Plascencia remains committed to getting drunk drivers off the streets. We tapped into that commitment by asking Plascencia to share his expertise with us. In an interview with Law Officer’s associate editor, Amy Clark, Plascencia discusses the value of a full-time DUI team and provides DUI-arrest tactics that helped him set a record, and more importantly, save lives by clearing the roadways of drunk drivers.
Law Officer: What’s unique about Orange PD’s DUI task force?
Armando Plascencia: Before we had a full-time team, we would deploy a DUI team mainly for the holidays—November/December up through New Year’s Eve. That was a temporary assignment. About three or four years ago, the department received an Office of Traffic Safety grant to fund a DUI task force of two full-time officers. We rotate these officers annually. For the first year, the grant covered half of the officers’ salaries. Now, the department funds all.
Each officer has their own car. One officer will work the north end of the city and the other will patrol downtown, so we’ll have full coverage. Primarily, I worked 10-hour shifts, from 1800 hrs–0400 hrs Wednesday through Saturday. I’m on day shift now as a motor officer, but I prefer nights. I like the activity. I’m still a patrolman at heart.
Law Officer: How many DUI arrests did the department make last year, and what portion of those were made by the DUI team?
Armando Plascencia: As a department last year, we made roughly over 1,043 DUI arrests. I believe the DUI team’s number was 626 arrests. It was a busy year.
Law Officer: Does the team set a challenge goal at the beginning of each year?
Armando Plascencia: Yes, basically coworkers joke around, challenging each other. At first, 250 was my goal. I was beat out. Then my wife, Sarah, who is a dispatcher in the department, said, “Go for 300! I know you can do it. You still have ’til December.” So, I reached 300, and I had a couple of weeks left. The captain, says, “Hey, you know 325 sounds like a good number.” And my wife says, “The captain’s right. 325. That’s your goal number. Why not?”
I was challenged as well by the Santa Ana police officer, Kevin Macina, who had the old record—I believe it was 317. His wife is Vicki Macina, Victim Advocate of the Orange County chapter of MADD. One night they called in a DUI, and that’s how I met Kevin. He made it a bit of a challenge: “Hey, I bet you can’t beat my record.”
I couldn’t have done it without my wife, captain, lieutenant, sergeant and my department. All those times when officers came by to back me up. You know, you always want to try to get your own arrests for the night instead of following the DUI guy five times a night.
Obviously, the main goal is try to get as many of these DUIs off the road as possible. But that was definitely a long year for me. I called myself a professional tree killer. All the paperwork. That’s one area where the younger officers become frustrated. I tell them it’s well worth it because if you’ve taken even one DUI off the road, you’ve made a difference.
Law Officer: What have you found are the best driving observations that result in a DUI arrest?
Armando Plascencia: The most frequent ones are lane-straddling (occupying two lanes at the same time), weaving and drifting within the lane, driving very slowly and making erratic, sudden turns. Less often you’ll notice someone driving without their headlights on. Those are the main ones. That’s not to say that there aren’t others.
Law Officer: What sorts of areas did you patrol?
Armando Plascencia: Some defense attorneys ask, “Why were you patrolling the bars?” Well, I was patrolling areas where bars are. Yeah, there might be DUIs in residential areas, but as far as the frequency in numbers, obviously you’re going to patrol your downtown areas and entertainment districts. You won’t find the dopers at a church. Truth is, there are so many DUIs out there, as long as you’re driving the main streets, you’ll see somebody driving under the influence. You don’t have to sit across the street from a bar and watch.
Law Officer: What questions do you ask during the pre-arrest time, and how important are they to your investigation?
Armando Plascencia: Usually when I go up to the car, I tell the driver why I pulled them over and I obtain the basics as far as driver’s license, registration, proof of insurance. I ask questions such as, “Where are you headed? Where are you coming from? Is this your vehicle?” I want to get them to talk to see if I smell the odor of an alcoholic beverage and to observe other indicators.
After that, I go into my DUI investigation. We have a set of questions we ask each time. Their answers to my questions determine the direction of my investigation. The questions include determining if they have any physical defects, if they’re under the care of a doctor, if they’re diabetic and taking insulin. A good portion of these people are taking medications or drugs, such as hydrocodone, antidepressants, marijuana, etc., all substances that increase the effects of one or two beers. We also ask when was the last time they ate, if they’ve slept recently, and if they are feeling the effects of alcohol.
Law Officer: Do you use a set pattern for your field sobriety tests (FST)? If so, what tests do you use?
Armando Plascencia: My main rule is to do everything basically the same way, each time. That way when it comes time to go to court, they can’t challenge you. You can say, “Hey, I do it the same way every time, no matter what type of person I’m dealing with.”
I use the tests certified by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA): the horizontal gaze nystagmus (HGN) test, the walk-and-turn and the one-leg-stand. Plus, there are a couple optical tests: the Romberg (also known as the 30-second internal clock test) and the finger-to-nose test. We’re trained to do the tests in this order: the HGN, Romberg, walk-and-turn, one-leg-stand and last, the finger-to-nose test.
Law Officer: Do you find that the understanding of your instructions is as telling as the performance on the test itself?
Armando Plascencia: Not necessarily. It’s a clue, but it shouldn’t carry the entire weight as far as the DUI arrest. Make a mental note that they’re having trouble with instructions. But you shouldn’t base your opinion on that alone. And, you want to make sure they do understand the test before you conduct it no matter how many times you have to explain it to them. That way they can’t say in court later on, “I didn’t understand the test.”
Law Officer: How do you note your observations of the tests?
Armando Plascencia: I use written notes. Our department is still in the works as far as video. It would be great to get a video camera out there for DUIs.
Once I’ve determined I’m going to conduct a DUI investigation, I get my clipboard with my department’s DUI investigation forms. I ask the subject the questions, and immediately record their responses. As the subject performs the FSTs. I record as much information as possible while the tests occur.
Law Officer: What do you look for when you conduct the HGN test?
Armando Plascencia: With the HGN, you have a subject track a stimulus with their eyes to see if they’re tracking thoroughly. Use a midpoint between their nose and shoulders as a guide—that’s roughly a 45-degree angle. If you notice a jerking or bouncing of the eyes right before the shoulder, that’s roughly an indication of a blood alcohol content (BAC) of .08 or more. If you observe their eyes bouncing anytime before that, you’ll probably see a higher BAC.
Administering the HGN was difficult for me in the beginning because I had a very hard time seeing it. As I gained experience, I was able to see the HGN more clearly. It’s like doing anything over and over again—you’ll be able to do it more easily than before.
You can also conduct the vertical gaze nystagmus. With a person with a higher BAC, you’ll see it. Another test is the lack-of-convergence test, the inability to cross your eyes.
Law Officer: Do you use a preliminary alcohol-screening (PAS) device in the field, such as a handheld breath tester? If so, when do you use this and how do you sell it to the suspect?
Armando Plascencia: I use the PAS device only if my opinion is borderline as far as the subject’s performance. I try not to use the PAS test with the person who is obviously intoxicated because I want to be able to develop my expertise and not base a good portion of my opinion on the PAS test. But I’ll use it when my opinion is swaying, and whenever I’m doing a DRE (drug recognition expert) examination as well.
As far as “selling it to a suspect,” I let them know, “Hey, in my opinion you are borderline and you have the option of taking the PAS test. You’re not obligated to submit to it, and you can refuse it at anytime. If you blow under, you’re probably going home.” If they hear, “I might be free,” nine times out of 10, they’ll take it. I’d say I’ve used it maybe 25 times, and I arrested possibly 20 out of 25.
Law Officer: Do you have any advice for officers for determining the lower blood-alcohol DUIs?
Armando Plascencia: I always tell officers, “Watch the eyes. What do the eyes tell you? After their performance on the other tests, it you’re still not sure, take a look at the eyes one more time. The HGN test will probably be your best bet.” Alcohol affects certain eye muscles. Although some people can still walk and talk well when intoxicated, the nystagmus is involuntary, and they can’t hide it.
Law Officer: Explain how you take the person into custody when you make the decision to arrest. Do you tell them what you’re going to do, or do you use some sort of deception or diversion to avoid potential problems?
Armando Plascencia: It depends on the situation. I’m 6'4", 275 lbs. It’s rare where I feel I’ll have issues with an arrestee. But there is a tactic I use if I see there might be a problem. After I’ve conducted the FSTs, I tell them, “OK, there’s one more test. Do me a favor. Go ahead and put your hands behind your back, interlace your fingers, palms together, close your eyes, spread your feet and count to 10.” Then I move from a position in front of the subject and, switching with my partner, go behind them, grab their fingers, take out my handcuffs and quickly put them on.
I don’t want a fight. I don’t want to get hurt or any other people to get hurt. If I need to use deception to avoid a fight, so be it. As long as I go home safe, that’s fine. Knock on wood, out of 325 arrests last year, I didn’t have to fight once.
Law Officer: After the arrest, do you have a set list of questions you ask?
Armando Plascencia: Not really, other than advising them of the chemical tests for the arrest. If the incident involved a hit and run, a situation where they hurt somebody else, a repeat offender or someone looking at a felony, I’d go into their Miranda rights and ask some questions.
Law Officer: Do you search the vehicle post-arrest? If so, what do you look for?
Armando Plascencia: I always search the vehicle post-arrest. I look for anything and everything: weapons, drugs, beer cans, open and unopened containers, even receipts to prove the driver was lying about how much they had to drink.
Law Officer: Which test do you try to obtain—blood, breath or urine?
Armando Plascencia: The urine test is not outlawed, but we haven’t used it, I believe, since 2000. The only time we administer the urine test is if we suspect drugs. Their choices are blood or breath. There’s no disputing the best one is blood. But basically it’s up to the person. If they ask me which one’s better, I say, “Hey, it’s all the same. Are you afraid of needles or not? Do you want to find out the results now or later?”
Law Officer: What have you learned about report writing?
Armando Plascencia: Early on in my career, I went to court on DUI and I was raked over the coals. The defense attorney just let me have it. Ever since then, I’ve learned what to do.
Take great notes. Immaculate notes. You want to be able to articulate as much as you can about your decision to make the stop. If you see one violation, great. Try and wait, give it a second or two, see if you see something else. Don’t stop them right away. Try and get one or two more violations.
In the report, include everything relevant to the case and as much detail as possible to help your memory. Because you’re doing so many of them, make sure you include details that distinguish each one. Record the suspect’s statements, such as, “Yeah, officer, I’m too drunk to drive.” Dot your i’s, cross your t’s and go over everything meticulously, because that’s what they’ll be doing to your report once it goes to court.
I learned this too: Don’t take it personally. I used to get upset if I’d lose a DUI case. Or, I’d get frustrated with the arrestee. But it’s not worth it. I’m not going to let them get the best of me.
Law Officer: What advice do you have for officers who find themselves headed to court on a DUI case?
Armando Plascencia: As far as the DUI per se hearing, remember, both the hearing officer and the defense attorney are recording it. [In the state of California, a person arrested for DUI has the right to an administrative hearing before the Department of Motor Vehicles to contest the action and review the evidence supporting it. The driver’s license portion of the DUI is separate from the criminal matter, which the courts handle. A person must request a hearing within 10 days of receiving notice of the action against the driving privilege. —ed.] When it comes time to go to court, the defendant’s attorney will have a transcript of everything you said in the per se hearing. If you forget what you said there, you’re going to look bad on the stand. Bring your own tape recorder to the hearing and set it out along with everybody else. That way you’ll have your own record of your testimony. When it’s time to go to court on a criminal case, you’ll know what you testified to beforehand.
Law Officer: What officer-safety tactics do you always use when making DUI stops?
Armando Plascencia: Always have a backup. The suspect is intoxicated, so they’re not thinking. You never know what to expect. If they’re sober, they might not try something. But if they’re intoxicated, they have their liquid courage, and something can always go wrong. Always get a backup officer before running any of your field sobriety tests.
Law Officer: What is the worst or most threatening experience you’ve had doing DUI arrests?
Armando Plascencia: My wife was rear-ended by a drunk driver. That was a big thing and I was worried. That person was convicted for DUI. But as for the most threatening experience on the job, I’ve been fairly lucky.
I pulled over a vehicle that was driving on the wrong side of the road. The driver was intoxicated, but the passenger was more intoxicated, and he was the angry one. I called for backup right away. As I was waiting for the officer to get there before doing the FSTs, the passenger gets out of the truck. He takes a fighting stance. He’s stretching out, touching his toes. I’m thinking, “This guy’s going to be a problem.” My partner arrives, and we tell him to get in the car several times. He gets in, he gets out. Finally, I’m ready to arrest the driver, and I’m handcuffing him. And here comes the passenger charging toward me with his fists in the air. Meanwhile, I’m holding the arrestee up because he’s so intoxicated. I’m thinking, “OK, this is going to hurt. I’ll just brace myself.” My partner is shouting, “Get back, get back, or you’ll be tased.” He doesn’t. Next thing I know my partner’s tasing him.
Law Officer: What’s been the most satisfying part of the job?
Armando Plascencia: Getting them off the road and preventing them from hurting themselves or somebody else. Thinking to myself, “You know, you possibly saved somebody’s life today.”
You read so often in the papers how the drunk driver gets in an accident, and the driver is fine but the other people in the vehicle are dead. Plus, I have kids—two boys and my wife is pregnant. I want my family members to be safe. Way too often officers are killed by drunk drivers. It’s just not worth it for something that could have been prevented by a phone call or a cab or just not overdoing it while drinking.
I always spot them on my way home. I call them in, and the highway patrol officers or deputies pull them over and get them. It happens all over the place. DUIs cost more than other crime as far as lives, insurance, vehicles and overall costs. I can’t believe people still haven’t learned.
Law Officer: What are your future goals for police work?
Armando Plascencia: As a field sobriety instructor, I want to keep up my expertise and pass it on to other officers. We’re training the younger officers to go out there and do DUIs. I want to stay on my motorcycle for a couple years, and eventually promote, hopefully to the rank of sergeant. I like patrol work and want to be a hands-on supervisor. And, one day retire and enjoy the good life.