CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It’s 9:45 on a Thursday night, and Officer Matthew Pressley is parked on the side of a street in east Charlotte, looking for a reason to talk to people.
Speeders get special attention. But he’s also looking for cars with busted headlights or drivers making wide turns or following too closely.
Pressley, a 14-year Charlotte-Mecklenburg police veteran (his anniversary was St. Patrick’s Day), arrested 158 impaired drivers last year – more than any officer in Mecklenburg and the fifth-highest number of DWI arrests in the state. The number got him an award and a steak dinner from the advocacy group Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
A specialist with a knack for spotting and helping prosecute drunken drivers, Pressley has received the MADD recognition in six of the last seven years.
As he checked the speeds of drivers on Farm Pond Lane last week, he noted his training in traffic enforcement but said there’s only one secret to taking drunken drivers off the roads at his clip: find a reason to talk to people, over and over again.
“A lot of people have the understanding that to find an impaired driver, they’re weaving all over the road and driving into a ditch,” he said. “There are a thousand reasons to stop a car.”
After they’re stopped, he said, he begins looking for signs that they’ve been drinking – the odor of alcohol, glassy eyes or even open containers of alcohol.
“You’re trying to be as aware of everything as much you can,” he said later.
The driver of a green minivan he stops, for example, was going 40 mph, 15 mph over the speed limit, when Pressley clicked on his flashing blue lights.
As he walks unhurriedly to the van with his flashlight, Pressley touches the car just below the rear window.
“If anything happens to you and they have to rely on finding that car later on, at least you’ve got your prints on it.”
As he approaches the driver, he’s already taking notes in his head.
Clothes in the back of the van obscured more passengers than he realized at first – at least five people are in the back seat. He scans the inside of the car for evidence of any crime – anything from an expired registration sticker to the smell of marijuana.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gives officers a list of roughly 50 signs that someone’s impaired – glassy eyes, slurred speech and a strong odor of alcohol are on the list, but so are things like a wide turning radius.
But the driver in the van isn’t exhibiting any of the signs. So Pressley returns to his car and writes a speeding ticket, which he hands to the man.
Back in the car, he uses a tuning fork to make sure his radar gun is working correctly, then starts scanning the roads, looking for other reasons to stop people.
A knack for traffic
Pressley, 37, grew up 90 minutes west of Charlotte, in Rutherford County.
After high school, he went to N.C. State, wanting to become a mechanical engineer, but winced at the thought of sitting behind a desk for the rest of his life. Halfway through college, he switched his major to criminal justice.
He wanted to be a police officer. Charlotte-Mecklenburg was the only department he applied for.
He started out in the Westover Division but had a knack for traffic enforcement and moved to the Highway Interdiction and Traffic Safety Unit.
After Police Chief Rodney Monroe took over the department in 2009, Pressley became a traffic officer in the Hickory Grove division in northeast Charlotte. He’s trained to reconstruct traffic wrecks and is certified on the radar gun and its laser equivalent, and he has racked up a lot of experience policing Charlotte’s streets.
He remembers the extreme cases: the guy going 112 mph on Interstate 77; a man who crashed into a picket fence and later blew a .36 – nearly four times the legal limit – at 3 in the afternoon. And the man who blew a .29 – twice – who asked on the way to jail “How do I keep getting these high scores?”
It’s been a while since he’s heard an original excuse for speeding. “A lot of people say they’re rushing to use the restroom,” he said. “A lot of times people say they’re going to the hospital, even if they’re not going in the direction of the hospital.”
And he’s seen just as many attempts to cheat a breath-alcohol test.
“I’ll have people that try to do pushups and jumping jacks, or try to drink a gallon of water after they’re arrested,” he said. “A lot of times, they’ll do the breathing exercises. You’ve got some folks who think they can blow all the alcohol out.”
In the courtroom
Some of the toughest parts of the job are not on the side of Charlotte roads.
Pressley believes some officers can become intimidated in court, especially while being questioned by defense attorneys.
“They have a job to do, but it can be frustrating for a lot of officers,” he said. “Especially when they’ve asked you the same question in seven ways.”
A year ago, police agencies in Mecklenburg had difficulty prosecuting DWI cases, as officers struggled to translate what they had observed on the road into convincing testimony in court.
Since then, the department has beefed up its training in an effort to make officers better on the witness stand – especially rookies and officers who transfer to CMPD from other departments.
“The court system is a completely different beast when you’re going in to fight a DWI,” said Lori Brown, with MADD. “You have to have the patience of Job.
“It’s more than just finding a drunk on the road. The officer has to follow the rules 110 percent. They have to go over and beyond on everything. If not, and you go to court, it’s going to be thrown out faster than anything. There’s a lot of officers that just don’t want to do it. Or can’t do it.”