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An Attorney Explains How Bruce Springsteen Got A DWI Without Being Drunk

The 71-year-old singer was cited for driving while intoxicated, despite the fact that he reportedly had a 0.02 blood-alcohol content.
February 11, 2021, 9:49pm
Bruce Springsteen DWI Arrest
Image via Getty 

Bruce Springsteen was 33 when he wrote "State Trooper," the sparse track that closes the first side of his Nebraska record. The song's desperate narrator is driving the New Jersey turnpike, past an oil refinery and the eternally gross Passaic River, hoping aloud that a cop won't stop him that night. "License, registration, I ain't got none," he sings. "But I got a clear conscience 'bout the things that I done." 

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Real life is rarely that poetic, which is why when the now 71-year-old Springsteen was arrested for allegedly driving while intoxicated (DWI), it didn't happen on a middle-of-the-night turnpike run or involve a State Trooper at all. Instead, he was tagged by a New Jersey park ranger, reportedly after he'd stopped his motorcycle to take a couple of pics with fans. 

According to TMZ, the singer was arrested on November 14 at Gateway National Recreation Area and cited for DWI, reckless driving, and consuming alcohol in a closed area. But as additional details about Springsteen's arrest have been revealed, it seems less "YOOOO, MORE LIKE 'BORN IN THE D.W.I.' BRUCE" and more...wait, you can get busted for that? 

For starters, "a source familiar with the case" told the Asbury Park Press that Springsteen's blood-alcohol content was 0.02, which is way under New Jersey's legal limit of 0.08. But if he was below the legal limit, what's the problem? According to Warren Sutnick, a New Jersey defense attorney who specializes in DWI cases, that can be up to the arresting officer to determine. 

"Unfortunately, Bruce did not retain me for his case, but generally speaking, the police are going to look at several factors when they suspect that a person is under the influence of alcohol or another controlled substance that could adversely impact their ability to operate a motor vehicle," he told VICE. "They could smell alcohol, [the driver's] eyes are droopy, or they're slurring their words. That could, of course, be caused by cough medicine or a prescription medication, so if an officer does suspect there's something affecting this person's ability to drive, they'll have them step out of the car and perform field sobriety tests." 

Sutnick explained that those tests are nationally standardized, and in New Jersey, they typically involve walking nine steps in a straight line and then walking nine steps back to the starting point; standing on one leg for 30 seconds; and the Horizontal Nystagmus Test (HGN), in which the officer watches a person's eyes as they follow an object from side to side. A Breathalyzer could be administered at the scene or at a police station to measure the driver's blood-alcohol content. 

"If somebody, let's say, does blow a 0.02, the officer could still say 'Well, there's something not right,' even after they've eliminated the [effects of] alcohol," Sutnick said. "They could get into the other reasons why a person is having problems driving, and that's where somebody with a 0.02 could still be charged with DWI, because there's some other substance they believe is affecting the person's ability to drive." 

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Another unnamed source said that everything went to shit for Springsteen when a group of fans saw him riding his motorcycle through the park and waved him over. "Bruce stopped, took the pictures, then a fan offered him a shot of liquor, which he took, while sitting on his bike, which was stationary,” that individual told the New York Post. “Park Police saw what happened and they immediately pulled Springsteen over as he drove away.”

That still might not be enough of a reason to stop a driver—even one that's not a member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. "Look, I'm a defense attorney, so even if an officer drives by a park and they see, let's say, people having a barbecue and drinking beer, and they get in their car, in my opinion, there would have to be other factors that would allow the police to lawfully stop that individual," Sutnick said. 

"Generally speaking, the officer would have to observe some type of motor vehicle infraction, which could be anything from if they go slightly over the centerline, driving too fast, driving too slow. My opinion would be that just seeing a person have one drink is not enough to pull them over. But officers are generally going to claim that there are other reasons, and other factors involved." (So that may explain Springsteen's reckless driving charge.) 

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On Thursday afternoon, FOX News said that it had obtained statements of probable cause regarding Springsteen's arrest, and that a park ranger named R. L. Hayes wrote that he watched the singer "consume a shot of Patron tequila" before getting back on his parked motorcycle. 

Hayes said that when he stopped Springsteen, the bottle that the shot had been poured from was "completely empty," and that he smelled "strongly of alcohol." The park ranger wrote that Springsteen performed poorly on field sobriety tests—especially the HGN part—and initially refused to take a portable Breathalyzer test. (A spokesperson for the National Park Service told the New York Times that Springsteen "was cooperative throughout the process.") 

Springsteen was reportedly informed that drinking was prohibited at the Gateway National Recreation Area—and the fact that he was stopped in that particular location further complicates his situation. "That's actually federal property," Sutnick explained. "As crazy as it is, [his charges] are a federal offense now, and it will be prosecuted in federal court under New Jersey state law." 

As for what happens to 'The Boss' now, that might depend on what his attorney and the prosecutor can agree on. In New Jersey, a DWI is considered a traffic offense, not a criminal one, and there are no plea bargains for that kind of case: either you're found guilty or not guilty of DWI. The prosecutor will have to decide whether he or she believes there's enough evidence to prosecute the DWI charge, and the fact that Springsteen's BAC was below the legal limit could be a factor in that decision. 

"Sometimes a prosecutor will look at the facts and say 'I can't prove a DWI here, but I can prove another traffic offense,' the defense attorney will agree with that, and [the attorneys] will now come up with a penalty for that offense," Sutnick said, adding that any tickets or citations that don't result in a guilty plea will be dismissed and will not appear on a driver's record. 

The Asbury Park Press reports that Springsteen has no previous DWI arrests, nor does he have any traffic ticket, parking tickets, or other charges in the state of New Jersey. He will have a video conference hearing in front of Judge Anthony Mautone, although his court date has not been released. As for whether he has a clear conscience 'bout the things he's done, that's up to Bruce to decide.