Police think Dominic Friedlein was drunk. One officer said the 24-year-old admitted as much at the hospital. “Someone else should’ve drove. I ruined my life today,” Friedlein said hours after the crash, according to Santa Fe police officer Ubaldo Garcia. “How do you not blame yourself for something like this? I killed someone today.”
On the evening of April 9, Friedlein misjudged a left-hand turn from St. Francis Drive to San Mateo Road, causing the crash that killed Stefan Seigmann, a passenger in his SUV.
Santa Fe police charged Friedlein with vehicular homicide and two counts of causing great bodily harm in a DWI crash. The mother and son who smashed into Friedlein's Toyota 4Runner were both seriously injured.
Friedlein told police he'd had three beers from a local brewery, all on an empty stomach. Given the right circumstances—the time in which he drank the beers, their size and alcohol content—he could have been drunk when he ordered the last one. There are more variables to consider, many of them subjective, but there's a chance someone should not have sold Friedlein that last beer.
Figuring that out—tracing the final drink through what's called a source investigation—can be one of the more effective tools in the fight against drunken driving. But as with Friedlein's case and a few dozen like it each year around New Mexico, deciding whether someone else played a part in a DWI-related death or injury is difficult.
For example, a police officer reported Friedlein had been drinking at Second Street Brewery. Investigators later learned it was the Santa Fe Brewing Company. Santa Fe Brewing Co. owner Brian Lock tells SFR he's since turned over receipts and video from the tasting room to Santa Fe police.
"Our thoughts and prayers are with the people involved in the accident," Lock says. "That's the first thing."
Lock says his servers are trained as required by law and that the tasting room has a three-beer limit. He didn't see anything on the video that would indicate one of his servers missed a sign that Friedlein was drunk.
"We all need to take personal accountability for our choices, right? That's not in question," says New Mexico State Police Captain Suzanne Skasik. "But the servers and the licensees carry a big weight on their shoulders, too, when making decisions about how to determine when a person has had too much."
Capt. Skasik oversees the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), which investigates overserving, serving to minors and other violations of the Liquor Control Act. Her team of 15 agents and five sergeants is spread out around New Mexico. They average a handful of source investigations a month; much of their time is spent not tracing last drinks but trying to be proactive.
"It's uncomfortable. It's difficult. And we really encourage the servers or the clerks that if they're not comfortable refusing the sale, to go to their leadership or their management and get that person involved," Skasik tells SFR. "And to err on the side of caution and deny the sale."
For those who don't, a first offense for serving someone who's drunk is a misdemeanor that often results not in jail time, but in a fine and the uneasy knowledge that their permit to sling booze is in jeopardy. That kind of threat to the pocketbook is usually pretty effective, state officials say.
There's also the promise of a harsh penalty for a second violation: a fourth-degree felony.
But it's the administrative side of things that really makes the law against overserving someone stand up. Penalties for licensees—the bars, gas stations and liquor stores—start at $1,000 and a day of no alcohol sales. Two violations in a year bring $2,000 and a week of not selling booze. Three violations in 12 months brings a revocation, according to New Mexico Administrative Code. But the state often chooses instead to force the license holder to sell the license. In New Mexico, liquor licenses are limited and have become a valuable commodity. One retail license recently sold for $1 million. Licenses for bars routinely cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In the past 20 years, Deputy Superintendent of Regulation and Licensing Alex Sanchez says, department staff can recall the state having revoked just a single license.
"People's livelihoods are tied up in these licenses. There are loans and mortgages that depend on the value of the license, so we work really hard to get people to sell them instead of a straight revocation," says Sanchez. "Also, if the banks know that we're taking away licenses, it becomes less likely that they'll loan money to buy them."
The SIU is the only law enforcement entity in the state that can issue an administrative citation for selling or serving alcohol to a drunk person. Other police agencies can refer source investigations to SIU, but Skasik says she often sees a crash reported on the evening news and tells her crew to get after it.
"We actively seek out information from within our own agency … when there is a fatality involving alcohol or when the investigating officer believes alcohol may have been a factor," Skasik tells SFR. "We try to get in as early as we can on those investigations to backtrack and trace the source."
Serious crashes aren't the only trigger for a state investigation, though. Complaints also come to SIU through the state's Alcohol and Gaming Division or from a local agency. Santa Fe County DWI Prevention Specialist Peter Olson says while a tip may not carry legal weight, it can be useful. "It's just their word, but it gives us an idea of where people have been drinking," he says.
In the city and county of Santa Fe, officers and deputies are told to ask suspected drunken drivers where they've been drinking as a matter of course.
"We can do our own last-drink investigations," SFPD deputy chief Mario Salbidrez says. But he knows that unless a witness speaks up or an officer is lucky enough to find a receipt for booze, the trail to the last drink ends at the scene of an arrest or a crash.
"Most of the time, they won't tell us where they had it."
Penalties for selling to a minor or intoxicated person
- First citation
- $1,000 and one-day suspension
- (no alcohol sales)
- Second citation
- (within 1 year)
- $2,000 plus seven-day suspension
- Third citation
- (within 1 year)
- $10,000 plus revocation