70 days in Japanese jail for drunken driving: airman tells the tale
Stars and Stripes June 17, 2011
MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — For 70 days, Airman Dustin Smith sat alone in a tiny Japanese jail cell, slowly working off a $4,400 fine for driving drunk.
Smith, assigned to Misawa, was already in trouble with his command in early December when he did what a lot of people do while under stress: He went out drinking.
He vaguely remembers someone in a bar saying that they would call him a taxi. The next thing he remembers is waking up behind the wheel, smashed into a parked car. He got out and saw both the front and back ends of his car dented and caved in, with each wheel pointing a different direction.
“I drove, apparently, three miles,” said Smith, who is being kicked out of the Air Force in the next two weeks.
He would later learn that he had hit a fence, smashed part of a curb and had struck a pole before hitting the car while blacked out that night.
The Japanese police blood-alcohol test registered a staggering .3, 10 times more than the .03 that Japan considers driving under the influence. When he was turned over to U.S. custody hours after being caught, his blood was tested at the base hospital and he still registered a .18 BAC.
It wasn’t until he sobered up the next day that he started thinking about the fact that he could have killed someone that night. He agreed to talk to Stars and Stripes in the hopes his story might prevent someone else from making the same mistake.
The Japanese authorities cited him for DWI and fined him 350,000 yen for his actions that night.
He didn’t have the money to pay, so the Air Force turned him over to the Japanese police and he was placed in jail. There, he spent mind-numbing, eight-hour shifts folding boxes of mesh netting that would later be used to hold fruit. For his work, he earned 5,000 yen ($64) a day.
He said he received no special privileges. He ate the same Japanese food as the other prisoners — rice, soup and vegetables.
“Breakfast, lunch and dinner (are) the same thing,” he said.
He got either two or three 10-minute showers a week, and had to attend 30-minute exercise sessions five days a week.
With no one to talk to, Smith said the time in jail gave him a lot of time to think about his mistakes, “my own soul searching if you will. That’s the only thing I had, me and my own thoughts.
“I did look at what I did and obviously saw flaws in my actions and the things I had done leading up to that situation.”
Smith said he hopes other people at Misawa will hear what happened to him, take it to heart, and not put themselves through the same drama.
“I would definitely say it’s not a pleasant experience and I guarantee nobody would come out with good things to say about it,” Smith said.
Col. Val A. Wimmer Jr., vice commander of Misawa’s 35th Fighter Wing, lauded Smith for having the courage to bring his story to the public.
“We won’t know when, we won’t know who, we won’t know where, but if it affects one person — and I bet it will — then it’s worth it,” Wimmer said.