Woman Arrested for DUI in Washington State Had a Brain Bleed

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Driving home from work on the day her life changed forever, Nicole McClure could feel her feet tingling and her sense of direction faltering. Then she noticed colorful lights illuminating the early morning landscape.

“Oh, pretty lights,” she remembers thinking, not realizing that a highway patrol car was coming up behind her. On what was supposed to be a simple drive home from her overnight job at Walmart near Olympia, Wash., Ms. McClure felt increasingly disoriented, and wound up crashing into two roundabouts before pulling over.

The state trooper who had followed her ran to her door with his gun drawn, shouting at her to get out of the car, according to his dash cam video. He demanded to know if she had been drinking or using drugs. She denied it. “I’m not feeling real well,” she said. The trooper was not convinced. She was taken to jail, accused of driving under the influence.

The arrest was the beginning of a more than 24-hour ordeal in the criminal justice system at a time when Ms. McClure was in desperate need of medical care. Her lawyers said she was left lying in her own urine on the floor of a cell as jail employees, apparently dismissing her as being drunk, taunted her. When someone finally realized she needed medical attention, records show, doctors discovered a brain bleed and rushed her into surgery. She spent 17 days in the hospital and emerged no longer able to work or to care for herself.

Ms. McClure’s case, detailed in a lawsuit, records and interviews, offers a jarring look into how the speedy assumptions law enforcement officers sometimes make during traffic stops can have devastating consequences.

Many law enforcement agencies now offer drug-recognition training to help officers distinguish between someone who is under the influence and someone who is in medical crisis. Yet failed assessments continue to result in delays in medical care, some of which are deadly. Boston and San Diego each had recent cases of arrests for intoxication that later turned out to be drivers who had experienced strokes. A similar case emerged last year in Puyallup, Wash., not far from where Ms. McClure lives.

“I knew I wasn’t drunk, I just didn’t feel good. I was so tired,” Ms. McClure said in an interview at her apartment, where she is now mostly confined because of brain damage that her lawsuit claims was made far worse by the delay in medical care.

A spokesman for the Washington State Patrol declined to comment, citing the litigation. Sheriff Derek Sanders of Thurston County, who oversees the jail where Ms. McClure was held, said in a statement that a thorough investigation of the “serious” allegations was underway.

“The safety of our inmates and staff continues to be our top priority,” he said.

Before her arrest, Ms. McClure, 38, had enjoyed hiking and cooking. She keeps pictures of herself from that time now that she has difficulty doing either activity.

She took a job as a night stocker at Walmart in 2022. She was still at work one night in March of the same year when she found herself slipping into a state of confusion. She could not seem to operate the scanning device she used for work. She struggled to set an alarm on her phone. Her hands became sweaty and her feet prickled.

Eventually, Ms. McClure recalled, her boss let her leave work early.

In law enforcement documents, Trooper Jonathan Barnes wrote that he saw Ms. McClure’s car traveling at a slow speed and drifting out of its lane not far from the Walmart. He turned on his lights and sirens but then deactivated them when the car did not stop. He later watched as the vehicle went over a raised portion of one roundabout, and then struck the center of a second one, damaging a front tire.

After Ms. McClure came to a stop, Mr. Barnes can be seen on video shouting at her to exit her vehicle. He accused Ms. McClure of eluding the police and resisting arrest, and put handcuffs around Ms. McClure’s wrists. One of her hands was still clinging to her keys, and the trooper accused her of trying to use them as a weapon, though there was no sign of that on the video.

In a flat voice, Ms. McClure insisted repeatedly that she had not been eluding. “I think I’m really tired,” she told the trooper. She said she had left work because she “was feeling dizzy” and denied taking any substances. “Just let me go, please,” she said.

But Mr. Barnes discounted her protests. “Everything you are telling me is you are under the influence,” he told her.

In a field sobriety examination, according to records, another trooper who had arrived on scene asked Ms. McClure to estimate when 30 seconds had elapsed. She guessed it at 35 seconds. The troopers reported that she had “very strong and obvious eyelid tremors.” She informed them that she had smoked marijuana two days earlier. She was then taken to the hospital — not for treatment, but to get a blood draw that could test for intoxicants.

Before those results could be analyzed, Ms. McClure was taken to the county jail. There, Ms. McClure recalled, one of the guards teased her by saying, “Why don’t you have another shot?” She said she responded that she was not drunk, but did not feel well.

“I remember them telling me I needed to change into their clothes,” Ms. McClure said. “I went to try and put my pants on, and I couldn’t put my pants on. I kept putting the same leg in the same pant leg.”

From there, she was placed in a cell, where she was found at one point in a puddle of her own urine, her lawyers said. She began vomiting.

She remained that way for more than 24 hours, until the jail’s medical team was called in to examine her and advised that she be taken to the hospital, records show. The toxicology analysis eventually found no sign of alcohol or drugs.

Instead, doctors at the hospital diagnosed a brain bleed that probably began with a blood clot in the brain, and they removed a portion of her skull to relieve the pressure, according to Ms. McClure’s lawsuit. The damage to her brain has resulted in “a lifetime of decreased capacity,” the lawsuit claims.

In an interview, Ms. McClure had difficulty putting together the words to describe her situation. The episode, she said, has left her struggling to care for herself. She cannot drive or work. She sometimes cannot remember all her medical appointments, or even where she is.

“I’m afraid to go into a store without knowing where my ride is parked,” she said. “I’m afraid to go outside.”

In her lawsuit, which seeks a jury trial and damages, Ms. McClure’s lawyer, Anne Vankirk, argued that her long-term injuries were preventable and sustained as a result of delays in getting treatment.

Seth Stoughton, a former police officer who now works as a law professor at the University of South Carolina, said it can sometimes be hard for officers to tell whether a person’s behavior is a result of mental illness, substances or a medical episode. The latest training recommendations, he said, call for officers to always be on the lookout for indicators of medical problems and to err on the side of calling in professional help if there is a potential health issue.

“Officers are not doctors, not paramedics,” he said. “They really don’t have, and are not expected to have, the expertise to diagnose what is causing medical distress. But they are supposed to be able to identify indicators.”

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