The New York Police Department is going to start using the word “collision” instead of the word “accident” to describe drunk-driving crashes, a move which the New York Times described as a “symbolic semantic change” that has long been requested by OUI victims. A police commissioner explained that the term “accident” inaccurately suggests that there is no fault associated with the event. The department has changed the name of its “Accident Investigation Squad” to the “Collision Investigation Squad.” An anti-DUI group tweeted on March 12, “NYPD agrees that drunk driving crashes aren’t accidents.”
I’m not sure that the difference between “collision” and “accident” is as significant as the Times and the NYPD seem to think, though it does raise an interesting issue of police use of language, including euphemisms and reverse euphemisms, in the context of operating under the influence and other Massachusetts criminal offenses. Euphemisms are a form of “doublespeak.” “Doublespeak” is language that doesn’t really communicate anything, even though it pretends to. Euphemisms, nice words used to hide an unpleasant reality, are “doublespeak” when used to deceive.
In the context of law enforcement, one common example would be use of the word “pacify.” An officer might report that he “pacified” an unruly drunk driver. What that officer might really mean is that he used force, possibly excessive force, against the suspect. The phrase “gained access” is also an example. Police might say that they “gained access” to a residence or a vehicle. One is left to wonder the manner in which they “gained” such “access.” Did they jimmy a lock? Did the police break down the door to “gain access”? Another example is the word “removed.” “Removing” a defendant from a car might be a nice way of saying “pulled him out of the car and threw him on the ground.” It is no secret that police sometimes use this kind of language to obscure arguably unlawful tactics.
While police tend to use nice words to describe or disguise their own conduct in reports, the opposite is true in their description of OUI defendants. When police report that a defendant “stumbled,” it might really mean that the defendant tripped over a crack in the pavement while it was dark outside. When police say that a defendant was “lethargic,” that might mean that it took the defendant a minute or two to locate his registration. When police report that a defendant “failed to follow directions,” it might mean that the defendant simply asked the officer a legitimate question. Police generally use these and other terms, including “unsteadiness on feet,” “slurred speech,” and “watery or bloodshot eyes” in providing canned descriptions of those accused of driving under the influence in Massachusetts and elsewhere.
If you or someone you know has been charged with OUI /DUI / DWI in Massachusetts, contact Stephen Neyman at (617) 263 6800. Attorney Neyman is one of Massachusetts’ most experienced drunk driving lawyers and represents OUI clients from all walks of life.