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Drunks' Night Out

A night on the front lines of New Mexico's battle with drunk driving, at a sobriety checkpoint.

By Jeff Berg

 

"I hereby solemnly promise, God helping me, to abstain from all distilled, fermented and malt liquors, including beer, wine and hard cider, and to employ all proper means to discourage the use of and traffic in the same."

—-Pledge of the Women's Christian
Temperance Union (WCTU)

 

It is nearly 11 p.m. on a Friday night, and I am standing alongside the street near a sobriety checkpoint with Sergeant Charles Devine of the New Mexico State Police. Sgt. Devine is in charge of the DUI Unit. Despite the huge amount of resources and arrests that have come from this program and others like it, the DUI Unit continues to have plenty to do on nights like this.

We are talking about how drinking and driving is still socially accepted in New Mexico, while casually watching as several officers from the Las Cruces City Police and several state troopers stop each car and politely check for driver's licenses and such. It has been a rather slow night, even though it is the start of the long Memorial Day Weekend, but it has been effective in nabbing several low-level rapscallions.

A DUI "mini" checkpoint near Las Cruces.

An older white van, its right turn signal winking at us through the darkness in a mocking manner as it approaches the checkpoint, is not slowing down. In fact, it is going way too fast, completely ignoring the orange cones set up for the checkpoint, the police cars with "gumball-machine" lights twirling, and the four uniformed officers standing in the middle of the street. My eyebrows raise, and I feel Sgt. Devine tensing up as he stands next to me. At the last possible moment, the driver of the van slams on his brakes, and the vehicle does a slight nosedive as it barely misses the faded Ford Escort stopped in the traffic lane of the checkpoint.

Unfazed, two officers approach the vehicle, although I notice that one has his hand hovering over his sidearm. The driver and his passenger are escorted from the van, and the beat-up vehicle is moved off the street by one of the city policemen.

The driver is a small wiry man, far too old to be wearing his baseball cap backward and slightly askew. He is nattily dressed in a T-shirt that proclaims something that I cannot make out at this distance, and in paint-splattered jeans.

His female companion strikes me as one of those people you see a lot of around here. She is probably 35 going on 55. Blonde, with too much makeup, which fails to hide the somnolent features of her sad face, she too, is dressed in typical New Mexico finery, a black T-shirt and jeans. (Sometimes one wonders if buttons are going the way of carbon paper, typewriters and dial telephones.)

"Only" 193 people died in alcohol-related accidents on New Mexico highways in 2005, as recently trumpeted by the governor's office. This is down 12 percent from 2004, when 213 people were slaughtered as the result of rampant stupidity. (In 2004, Rhode Island, of all places, had the highest percentage of alcohol-related highway deaths, at 50 percent.) But New Mexico's 2005 total was only five less than 2003. The real banner year was 1987, when 373 people became human roadkill. New Mexico's numbers mostly dropped a little each year from that point until 1999, when they started to slowly creep up again. In general, alcohol-related deaths in the state have hovered around 200 for the better part of 10 years, keeping New Mexico near the top in DUI fatalities nationally.

At the checkpoint, a state police officer—who has arrested nearly 240 DUI suspects in his career—starts to go through the routine with Mr. Backwardscap that will help determine if he is indeed drunk, or just drives like an idiot. Or both.

The first test is a vision test, but from my vantage point, I cannot really see how the suspect does. He is required to focus on two different objects as instructed by the officer. He can't be doing well, as I note he is swaying to and fro to the same song that many drunks "hear."

As this occurs, the woman passenger walks by me, accompanied by a female officer. It seems that Ms. Blacktshirt would fall over if not for the support of the policewoman, who is much smaller in stature. The woman's eyes are either very glazed or she needs cataract surgery. She is frisked and questioned briefly, but my attention returns to the driver.

It's wearying to think that even with all of the state's efforts in reducing the numbers for DUI over recent years, there are still so many people—like, I'm guessing, Mr. Backwardscap—who just don't get it.

 

As many of us do, I have my own negative experiences with DUI. When I was very young, I remember my father's car being hit by a drunk driver. Pop was tossed part-way from the car, but his foot got caught under the clutch pedal of the 1950s-vintage light blue Plymouth he drove back and forth to Chicago each day. He was dragged across the pavement for a short distance until the car came to a stop in a ditch. Although he was not seriously injured, he was in the hospital for a few days with various scrapes, cuts and abrasions. I don't know what happened to the driver. I don't wish him well.

Myself, being a pretty hardy drinker for many years, I should have been arrested several times for my immature and thoughtless behavior. One time comes to mind immediately: Once while in Illinois for a short respite, I was drinking a beer and either tossed the bottle out the window just as a police car passed me, or the police just happened by as I was slurping down the brew. He whipped around, pulled me over, and checked my license and such. Being in a transitional state (a frequent occurrence at that time of my life), I was in Illinois, but had Colorado license plates and a Wyoming driver's license. I remember him coming back and handing me my license and saying, "OK, Mr. Wyoming Driver with Colorado plates, you can go." I was so mystified and thankful that, even without a ticket, I learned my lesson and never drank while driving again. But it took me four more years to realize that John Barleycorn had a much bigger part in my other foolish behaviors, before I stopped for good.

But lessons were learned.

 

My host at the checkpoint is Sergeant Ken Erhard of the Las Cruces City Police. He started his career in Sandoval County, NM, as a reserve deputy, and from there, went to work with the Rio Rancho, NM, police department. He left his position in that city to relocate to Las Cruces in 1986.

Sgt. Erhard is nearing retirement, but is not quite ready to take "the leap" just yet. His job, as a senior sergeant, is in Patrol and Operations, specializing in underage alcohol enforcement, and he also coordinates this sobriety "mini-checkpoint" program. There are two other checkpoint programs, a "regular" size and the saturation, which from all indications is the kind that works the best. Sgt. Chris Miller and Sgt. Carey Clemens are in charge of those, respectively.

Erhard's interest in working in DUI enforcement stems from personal experience. "I was dating a woman in Albuquerque, and we used to go out dancing a lot," he explains. "She loved to dance. And then she was hit by a drunk driver, and ended up having a pin in her leg. I saw how much that incident changed her life, since of course, she could not dance like she had in the past. And it wasn't her fault that it had such a big impact on her life.

"Cops carry those images with them forever."

Erhard then recalls one of the more serious vehicle accidents involving drinking that he's seen. "This one is kind of infamous, because I have heard that there is a photo floating around somewhere of a child's shoe perched atop a tire. A van was hit at Lohman and Mesquite (just east of downtown Las Cruces) and I was one of the first officers on the scene. Several kids were killed."

Sadly but frankly, he ticks off a few more incidents—one on Telshor, where he was the first officer on the scene of a double-fatality wreck, another on the interstate where the cars hit with such force that they were cut in half.

"You go to these accidents and see the misery the survivors have, and how they have to live with their loss. So you do your part to be proactive," Erhard says. "You can't sit on the side, so you use whatever it takes—fear, motivation, awareness, education. They are like spokes in a wheel; you need them all."

Erhard spends a fair amount of time writing grants to get funding for the mini-checkpoints and for underage alcohol-enforcement programs. All told, under several different umbrellas, his budget for the programs for 2005-06 is just over $70,000. These monies come from various levels of government—state, county and federal. And everyone who is convicted of DUI locally also helps pay for the programs, as $75 of each fine is returned to a community fund to help finance DUI operations.

In spite of legal challenges by various groups or individuals, sobriety checkpoints are still seen and used by numerous law-enforcement agencies around the country, not just in New Mexico. And apparently with reasonable success. (See the February 2005 Desert Exposure for more on the pros and cons of checkpoints.)

One thing that Erhard has noticed since the late 1980s is that more women drunk drivers are being caught these days. "There is a gender switch now," he says.

"The idea of a checkpoint is for voluntary compliance and to help reduce the number of crashes overall, and to save lives and property," Erhard goes on. "It is a tool to get people to think about DUI, with the visibility being used to change the mindset of people. The idea is to change the public's perception and opinion, and that ultimately, people will not drink and drive."

It hasn't seemed to help much this year, however, despite to the best efforts of Erhard and his co-workers. Deaths on New Mexico highways are up in 2006, with 203 fatalities through April, compared to 172 for the same period last year; 71 of those deaths were booze-related, which is an increase of one from 2005. Summer tends to be a more dangerous time on the highway, so if this trend continues (again), you will surely see more programs and more money poured into getting people to pay attention.

 

A good example of New Mexicans who still don't get it even made the New York Times last December. The article noted the following in a piece about New Mexico's continuing issues with fermented beverages: "Recently, an Indian tribal police chief was charged with drunken driving after a wreck; the chief business officer for the Albuquerque school system was accused of driving drunk and pleaded no contest; a judge was forced to resign after intervening to release a friend arrested for drunken driving; a chief state district judge resigned after pleading guilty to aggravated DWI and possession of cocaine; another judge quit after being accused of altering court records to make her appear to have been tougher on offenders, and two Albuquerque police officers in the DWI unit were found to have drunken-driving convictions."

And perhaps best (worst) of all was the appearance of Joseph Tapia, a suspended Santa Fe lawyer who showed up at a forum for DUI victims—drunk. A Santa Fe County sheriff's deputy noted that Tapia, a repeat DUI offender, was making sounds, staggering and swaying as he stood in line, telling people to hurry up,"

One suspects he drove to the forum.

The penalties for DUI have a whole range of stirring punishments. They have been ongoing almost since New Mexico became a state, as the legislature in 1913 voted to toss DUI offenders in the pokey.

Now, first-time convicted offenders get license revocation (rather pointless in this state), up to 90 days in the slammer, and mandatory DUI school, alcohol education, ignition interlock (why have that if they aren't supposed to drive, anyway?) and community service.

A seventh or subsequent offense, which is a third-degree felony, nets the convicted a lifetime license revocation, two years of mandatory prison time, treatment, and up to a $5,000 fine. One would think that the state would also spring for an IQ test for those who are that stupid.

 

Sgt. Erhard had planned on moving this checkpoint to a more active spot later in the night, but another inebriated individual waylaid that plan. The drunk who prevented this night's move was a passenger in a vehicle driven by his (also) smashed girlfriend. When the officers went to arrest her, the man became aggressive, raising his hands as if to strike an officer.

Not a good idea. He was arrested and hauled away.

Erhard says that by moving the checkpoints, they can stay one step ahead of those who use cell phones to call their friends or relatives to alert them to the location of the checkpoint.

"We also know that some bars will announce the location of the checkpoints, too," he adds.

The not-too-grim totals for the evening of this checkpoint include two DUI arrests, one arrest for driving with a revoked license, three outstanding warrants, five without licenses, 10 sans insurance, three without registration, and two open-container violations.

There was also at least one seized vehicle, that from the gent driving on a revoked license who also had a warrant on him for battery against a household member. Sadly for the owner of the vehicle, his generosity in loaning it to his friend or relative may have been repaid by the loss of the vehicle, which was impounded. The driver had his work tools in the back of the truck along with some other belongings; Sgt. Erhard makes the decision not to keep the man's belongings, since he needs the tools and such for work, assuming he gets out of the pokey anytime soon.

This was a quiet night. Erhard recalls another night that his crew (usually 12 officers at a mini) had 17 DUI arrests, and "another time when we had our first arrest within 15 minutes."

He adds, "It all has a lot to do with attitudes."

Conclusions? Solutions? As both sergeants Erhard and Devine point out, nothing will really change until the idea that being drunk while driving is socially acceptable.

An old maxim by the Prohibition Party, a small but consistent and persistent political party, reads, "Tremble, King Alcohol, we shall grow up. "

The question is, when?

Senior Writer Jeff Berg lives in Las Cruces.

 

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