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Published January 27 2010

Driver who hit cop: 'I was nowhere near drunk'

The driver arrested for DUI after rear-ending a Fargo police cruiser during Monday’s blizzard said Tuesday that he wasn’t drunk and didn’t have time to react because of where the officer parked his squad car.

Jacob Daniel Rheault, 26, was arrested on suspicion of DUI and cited for speed care required and driving with an expired license.

Rheault said he blew under the legal limit on a Breathalyzer test but, because he was so shaken up from the crash, failed a field sobriety test, which police said can be enough to warrant a DUI arrest.

Rheault said he had been drinking until 2 or 2:30 a.m. Monday and stayed at a friend’s place. He was on his way home to West Fargo when the crash occurred in whiteout conditions at about 1:30 p.m. in the 5100 block of 40th Avenue South in Fargo.

Police said the officer, Grant Benjamin, came across a stranded vehicle and stopped his police SUV cruiser on the road to protect the people trying to get the vehicle unstuck.

Rheault said the officer shouldn’t have stopped in the whiteout, which started just west of a bridge over a drainage ditch, but instead on the edge of the whiteout to warn drivers about the stranded vehicle ahead.

“I mean, I was right on top of him before I even saw him,” Rheault said.

“If I didn’t hit him, somebody else would have, to be honest with you,” he added. “I know he was protecting that car, but park on the east side (of the bridge) where someone can see you first.”

Rheault said another officer tried to give him a Breathalyzer test at the scene, but it didn’t work. He said he was taken to a nearby grocery store for a field sobriety test.

“I was so shaken up from the accident, how was I supposed to do that?” he said.

Rheault said he was given a breath test about a half-hour later at the Cass County Jail. It showed his blood-alcohol concentration was .02, he said.

Under state law, the legal limit for driving is .08.

“So, I was nowhere near drunk at all,” he said. “It just happened so fast that (I was) right on top of him.”

Fargo police Sgt. Mark Lykken said he doesn’t know if Rheault was drunk or not, or whether he was given a Breathalyzer. He said he couldn’t discuss it anyway because breath tests aren’t admissible as evidence in court. A blood sample was taken from Rheault, he said, but the results weren’t known yet.

A driver doesn’t need to be over the legal limit to be charged with a DUI, Lykken said. Police need to show the driver had a BAC of .02 or greater and demonstrate that he or she failed the field sobriety test, he said.

Lykken said he spoke to Benjamin about the accident, and the officer said he parked where he did to protect the girl in the stranded car and the three men who had arrived with shovels to dig her out.

“He has no doubt that if that police car wouldn’t have been there, one of those individuals would have been struck who was shoveling the car,” Lykken said.

The crash impact caused Benjamin to hit his head on the steering wheel and then hit it again on the cage divider behind his seat. He was held overnight at MeritCare Hospital for observation but wasn’t seriously injured.

Rheault said he was probably going about 25 mph when he saw the squad car and hit the brakes.

“I was probably going too fast for the conditions,” he said. “But I was not drunk.”

He acknowledged that his license is expired, explaining that he had to get his eyes examined because he needed contacts, but he hadn’t done it yet.

His Jeep Grand Cherokee was totaled in the crash, he said.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528