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In Defense of “Vodka Samm”

Last week, the Internet exploded with stories about a University of Iowa student (real name and photos kept out of this article) with the Twitter username @vodka_samm. “Vodka Samm” gained international attention for tweeting about her high BAC while in police custody at an Iowa football game. These stories were largely sensationalized. Vodka Samm may not be the person that she appeared to be that weekend.

Let’s start with how this actually happened. Looking at the photos posted on various sites, it appears she entered the student section of the stadium well before kickoff on Saturday, August 31. The field was empty, the stands were largely empty (except for the front of the student section). This was a 2:42 p.m. kickoff for Iowa’s season opener against Northern Illinois University. Based on how the stadium normally fills up, this event occurred probably 30 to 60 minutes before kickoff, or around 1:45-2:15 p.m.

Once she left the stands and walked onto the edge of the field, she was stopped and taken into custody by a Johnson County deputy. As part of standard procedure, and a requirement under Iowa law, she would have been offered a “PBT,” or preliminary breath test. Due to the lack of photos of her on the field, she was probably led out of the public eye for the administration of the PBT.

The PBT is not a highly accurate device. It actually cannot be used as evidence in a criminal trial for OWI (DUI) in Iowa. It is only used in OWIs to determine if the officer has probable cause to take a driver back to the police station for further testing. It is not used to determine the specific level of intoxication for court purposes in those cases.

Part of the inaccuracy of the PBT is due to how much it is influenced by mouth alcohol versus metabolized breath alcohol. For a more accurate result, the officer would want to observe the suspect for at least 15 minutes to make sure that nothing is in or passing through her mouth. This would include a drink of any kind, gum, or anything coming up the other way. With the enormous strain placed on game-day police officers, it is possible she was not observed for the necessary 15 minutes prior to administering the PBT.

Alcohol is not allowed in Kinnick Stadium, and you are not allowed to leave and come back, so most students that choose to drink take that last big drink right before entering the stadium. Others smuggle in little airplane bottles of booze. If Vodka Samm slugged that 1 oz. bottle of Smirnoff to get the courage to jump from the stands, it is possible that mouth alcohol severely altered the PBT result.

Another picture shows Vodka Samm cuffed and arrested, while waiting outside the holding tank in Kinnick Stadium. This picture shows a whiteboard with the suspect’s name, along with the PBT result. In this case, it says “refused.” Now why would one report say 0.341, and the other say she refused the test? Clearly there is an inconsistency. Perhaps the initial PBT was offered too early with a falsely high 0.341, and all subsequent tests were refused. It is not clear, but it casts further doubt on the accuracy of the famous 0.341.

In Johnson County, all defendants have the right to see a judge within 24 hours of arrest. These Initial Appearances occur the following morning, usually starting around 8:00 a.m.

I spoke with an individual who saw Vodka Samm appear in court the following morning. She saw nothing unusual about the case, except that it was the highest BAC on a report that morning. “Ms. Samm” appeared in court fine, seemingly sober and entered her plea of guilty. In fact, the judge had already given a speech regarding the danger of a high BAC to a prior defendant, so she did not repeat the concern. It was not until the workweek began that anyone had any idea this was a going to be big news item.

If Vodka Samm was an actual 0.341 at around 2:00 p.m., she would still have been quite drunk at around 8-9:00 a.m. the following day. A 0.341 may have only been reduced to a 0.160 , which is still almost double the legal driving limit. True, severe alcoholics can appear sober when they are not. But it is also possible that she was sober in court and the 0.341 was erroneous.

What about the Tweets themselves? All of the famous ones were made while she was still under the influence. These are not the rational decisions of a sober person sitting at home. We are at a crossroads with technology where this is just becoming to be possible. Young people have been doing and saying unfortunate things while in custody for decades. Only now do we have a direct outlet for that behavior via Twitter. At a high level of intoxication, rational decision making goes out the door. Unfortunately for Ms. Samm, this behavior was broadcast not just to her friends on Twitter, but to the whole world. That was not likely the intention she would have had if she were sober. Anybody who judges her would have to think back to all of their own rough nights out, and think what could have happened if somebody was there recording and broadcasting with today’s technology.

Plenty of news sites have chastised Vodka Samm because she seemingly reached a 0.341 while being so small. “For a girl of her size…” etc. If anything, small body mass lowers the difficulty to reach this level of intoxication. A person with lower mass requires less alcohol to raise their Blood Alcohol Content. Let’s say Vodka Samm and 300 lbs. Big Bubba each drank a case of beer, who would have a higher percentage of alcohol volume compared to blood volume? Of course it would be the smaller woman. If Big Bubba rolled into jail with a 0.341, how many more cases of beer would he have had to drink? BAC is BAC, it doesn’t matter how heavy, or how much mass that person has. Being little and drunk is no worse than being big and drunk.

Being little means that in takes LESS alcohol to reach a higher BAC.

Moving on to my area of expertise, local Iowa criminal law.

Vodka Samm actually is doing quite well. She is currently 22 years old, and has managed to avoid all other criminal offenses for the entire time she has been in the State of Iowa. A criminal history report only shows the famous Public Intoxication charge. Unlike many other students, she avoided Fake ID charges, after-hours bar charges, underage alcohol possession, any prior Intoxication charges, OWI’s, drug charges, etc.

And for the charge she received in this case, she received only a $100 fine and no jail time. Furthermore, Iowa law allows her to expunge this offense as long as she continues to avoid all criminal convictions for two years following this case. That means, two years from now (if she files the petition to expunge), there will be no state record of any criminal case. She would have a clean record. How many big time party-goers, at “the nation’s #1 party school” can say that?

Don’t let the alter-ego persona of Vodka Samm ruin this girl’s true identity. She goes to school, gets good grades and has managed to avoid all marks on her criminal record except for one. And that one can even be expunged.

I have not met her, nor do I represent her. But hey, Ms. Samm, stay out of trouble, and call me in two years and I will file that expungement petition for free. You’ve paid enough already.

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