The government complex at the south end of Galisteo Street is a convenient one-stop shop for hundreds of Santa Feans' post-drunk driving needs. There's the Magistrate Court building for punishment, the Santa Fe County DWI Program offices for monitoring and the Sobering Center for waiting out the delirium tremens.
This morning brings one DWI trial for Magistrate Court Judge George Anaya Jr., who has foregone the formality of a robe. The khaki-clad defendant, Remus VanNorman, is representing himself because a private lawyer wanted $1,500 for a 50-50 chance of beating the charge.
Anaya gives VanNorman some credit for having already installed an ignition interlock on his car to prevent it from starting if he's got booze on his breath. Granted, the device has some quirks.
"Pizza will set it off," VanNorman says. He blames the yeast.
A lot has happened in the 292 days between when VanNorman was arrested for drunk driving last July and when he finally faced trial last week on May 13. After 40 days in jail and nearly a year fighting the rap, VanNorman just wants to get it over with. "That's why I took the plea," he says.
By the time he completes his sentence, the unemployed 28-year-old will have consumed the time of two state police officers, several county corrections officers, a private defense lawyer, an assistant district attorney, a judge, a jury, a probation officer, hearings officers, records clerks, auto mechanics, medical specialists and staff at the Boys & Girls Club on Alto Street in Santa Fe, where he'd like to complete his 24 hours of community service.
On the bright side, it was VanNorman's first DWI. For every three misdemeanor DWIs like his, Santa Fe courts process at least one felony DWI resulting from a third offense. Or a fifth. Or an eighth.
Because VanNorman pleaded guilty to lesser charges, the jury wasn't needed. Neither was the testimony of the prosecution witnesses, New Mexico State Police Officers Steven Carroll and Sam Sena, who came to court for nothing. The same thing had happened once before with the case already.
"It's a waste of time," Sena says outside the drab court chambers.
Multiply this scene 19,000 times each year, with varying degrees of inebriation and bloodshed, and you've got a picture of New Mexico's notorious drunk driving problem. Each case also offers clues as to why efforts to stop DWIs have not, as Gov. Bill Richardson recently claimed, "changed the culture."
State leaders want the public to believe that, thanks to their efforts, drunk driving is becoming a thing of the past. With good reason: DWI deaths provoke public outrage, most recently in the case of Santa Fe lawyer Carlos Fierro.
Prosecutors say Fierro struck and killed a pedestrian, William Tenorio, on Guadalupe Street after a night on the town in November. A former member of the governor's security detail, State Police Sgt. Alfred Lovato, was along for the ride.
Faced with such embarrassing headline grabbers, public officials throw out all manner of statistics to show they're fixing the problem.
For example, a February announcement from Richardson's office, carried in media outlets across the state, claimed, "Since the Governor took office, New Mexico has seen a 35 percent decline in drunk driving related deaths."
"Our solutions are working," Richardson said at the time.
But a deeper look at the numbers suggests New Mexico's progress has been marginal at best.
Furthermore, some experts—call them DWI dissidents—believe anti-drunk driving programs suffer from tepid bureaucratic thinking. They say leaders lack the imagination to conceive of new approaches, the conviction to pass them and the money to implement them.
"All the bureaucracies we have watched are not creative. We keep doing the same things expecting different results, and then the governor's office comes out and says, 'See, it's working!'" Linda Atkinson, executive director of the DWI Resource Center in Albuquerque, says. "There's a false sense of security that's been put out there."
Meanwhile, manpower and money pour into an endless cycle of arrest, prosecution, punishment and surveillance.
"We're like the gerbil on the little wheel in the cage," First Judicial District Attorney Angela "Spence" Pacheco says. "We just keep running in place."
Here's how the numbers get juked. Take that stat showing a 35 percent decline in "alcohol-involved" traffic fatalities since Richardson took office in 2002: Factually, it's correct.
But if the bureaucrats had started measuring in 1998, when there were 188 such deaths, the drop was only 24 percent through 2008, a year that saw 143 drunk driving deaths in New Mexico.
Even that more modest statistic misleads.
"There's not really enough fatalities in a given year to draw firm conclusions as to where that fatality rate is going," Stephen Prisoc, chief information officer for New Mexico's Administrative Office of the Courts, says.
Prisoc has analyzed judicial data for 25 years—in Illinois and New Mexico—and is wary of drawing broad conclusions. He says other factors—from seat belt use to the number of passengers who happened to be in cars that crash—could explain a rise or fall in deaths in any given year.
Indeed, 2008—the year Richardson's office trumpeted as a record low for drunk driving deaths—also set a nationwide record high for seat belt use, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. New Mexico surveys found that seat belt use increased about one percent a year during five years of Richardson's tenure.
In other words, if the DWI death rate is actually dropping, no one can be sure why. It could be because of Richardson's initiatives, like mandatory ignition interlocks. It could also be due to air bags, which the federal government began requiring in all new cars in 1999.
According to the state Motor Vehicle Division, there are now nearly four times as many cars on the road made after 1999, with mandatory air bags, than registered cars built before that year.
"In all states, as our older automobiles on the highways have been replaced with newer cars with better safety features, of course those head-on crashes that often come with DWIs will result in fewer fatalities," Prisoc says.
Policy makers also boast that New Mexico's DWI death rates have fallen dramatically relative to other states.
That could be good news—unless it means other states have gotten worse. Furthermore, feds have changed the method for measuring DWI fatality rates. Feds used to count each DWI death against every 100,000 people in a state. Now they stack deaths against a stat that measures traffic, called "vehicle miles traveled."
"If you start measuring by vehicle miles traveled, you'll find Hawaii ranks very high for DWI deaths," DWI Resource Center board member and math whiz Steven Flint says. "In the rest of the states, you have not only local traffic but traffic from neighboring states. So you wind up with a lower rate. Whereas in Hawaii, the only traffic is Hawaii traffic."
By the new measure, New Mexico, once the worst drunk driving state in the nation, now ranks in the middle third. But if the feds' yardstick hadn't changed, according to Flint's analysis, New Mexico would still rank in the top 10.
Progress supposedly marched on last year, too, with an 18 percent drop in New Mexico drunk driving deaths over 2007. "The drop seems largely related to behavioral changes connected with $4 per gallon gasoline and economic recession," according to Flint.
That makes sense, considering that in Colorado, drunk driving deaths dropped by about the same percent. But New Mexico compares poorly to its neighbor. New Mexico still had 20 more drunk driving deaths than Colorado last year—and twice as many people live in Colorado.
Besides, how New Mexico compares to other states distracts from a more important number: how many people die on the roads here each year because of drunk drivers.
That number has fallen steadily—but not dramatically—over the past two decades. And again, the decline may have more to do with improved car safety than with any of the state's costly enforcement and advertising campaigns; the latest, called "Women Drive Drunk, Too," shows a fallen woman against a backdrop of flames, presumably representing hell.
The rule applies to Santa Fe County, as well. In 1996, 16 people here died in drunk driving crashes. A decade later, 14 did. Six died last year. This year, three so far. Sometimes the dead wore seat belts, but most often they didn't. Crashes happen. There are good years and bad years.
"It's a matter of luck," Prisoc, the state statistician, says.
That kind of analysis doesn't sit well with those who think drunk driving will stop when everyone behaves responsibly all of the time.
On Nov. 13, two weeks before the fatal crash that put Santa Fe lawyer Carlos Fierro in the headlines, a 52-year-old man named Gilbert Perea drove his Ford truck down West Frontage Road.
Perea and his passengers weren't wearing seat belts, and New Mexico State Police Officer Sam Sena pulled him over in a trailer park. Perea's speech was "extremely slurred," Sena wrote.
Perea was, Sena says, "calm, [non]chalant, trying to be the northern buddy: "Heeeyy, how's it goEEing?'—trying to be real conservative with me. He really didn't think he was over the limit."
Sena reported Perea admitted to having one beer. Then he admitted to having four beers 15 minutes earlier. He failed several sobriety tests, then blew between 0.08 and 0.16 on a breathalyzer.
Not to mention, Perea was driving on a revoked license and the November stop was his seventh DWI.
That sounds egregious. Actually, it's common. "Within that same 30 days, I arrested a young female, and it was her sixth," Sena says.
Another man Sena pulled over on I-25 blew 0.39, a blood alcohol level that would kill many novice drinkers. That man had an empty bottle of vodka in the car. "I got him to pull over but, the minute he stopped, he passed out," Sena says.
The frustrating, catch-and-release nature of the job has given Sena an idea how to improve matters. "I think the penalties need to be stiffer: mandatory jail time on the first offense," Sena says.
Unfortunately, that would create new problems.
"Everybody says, 'we've got to get tougher on them.' OK, so we put everybody in jail. First of all, we can't afford the cost of housing these people. And if you do put them in jail, they lose their jobs, their families suffer and it's a cycle of poverty," District Attorney Pacheco says.
Pacheco finds it maddening the City of Santa Fe might close a $5 million budget gap by not recruiting new police officers, while "the cost of housing inmates went up by $465,000. Those are DWI people," she says. "Now do you know why I feel like a gerbil?"
Pacheco is among those who think drunk drivers—especially repeat offenders—are a social problem beyond the power of the courts to fully contain.
"If you were to get a DWI, chances are you would never get another one because you'd be devastated," Pacheco says. "Of all the DWIs, I'd say 60 to 65 percent fall in that category: They will never do it again. There's a medium range of problem drinkers who have a few DWIs, then they may get it. And then you have that last group that are alcoholic and there's nothing we can do to stop it."
Before Becky Beardsley was Santa Fe County's full-time DWI program coordinator, she was a bartender. That frontline experience sets her apart from many in her field.
"I don't know if you've ever dealt with a drunk…They're very hard to deal with," she says. "In their opinion, it's OK. We have people, they still show up to court intoxicated, they show up to our office intoxicated. They'll deny it to the hilt because they don't think they have a problem."
Santa Fe County Sheriff Greg Solano differs with many police colleagues in that he thinks there is something New Mexico can do to curtail repeat offenders—treat their alcoholism with inpatient rehab.
"Locking people up in prison or jail for long sentences without treatment serves no purpose," Solano says. "Most people addicted to drugs continue to get drugs one way or another in jails and prisons, also."
He thinks existing outpatient treatment isn't enough for the hard-core alcoholics who get multiple DWIs, often driving at two or three times the legal limit.
"I have family members that have been through the classes and I think it made a difference with them. But some people, after their third or fourth DWI, the classes are repetitive," Solano says. (Solano's son, Aaron, was arrested on his second DWI last July, and the sheriff wrote on his blog about arranging inpatient rehab for his son.)
Gov. Richardson's "DWI Czar," Rachel O'Connor, says treating alcoholics takes lower priority than stopping first-time drunk drivers, who cause the majority of deadly accidents.
"Santa Fe County is probably doing the best in terms of people actually getting treatment—better than the other counties we've looked at," she says.
That sets a low bar.
Drugs or alcohol factor into the abuse of two-thirds of the families who use the Esperanza Shelter for Battered Families, the shelter's manager, Kristin Carmichael says.
"There's a reason [New Mexico has] such high statistics for domestic violence, for DWI, for sexual assault: We don't have the resources. Look around. We don't offer the same responses that other places offer," she says.
There are a few inpatient residential treatment centers in Santa Fe County, including the Santa Fe Recovery Center, where waiting lists can be long, Carmichael says. The DWI program coordinator, Beardsley, says inpatient treatment is too costly for everyone who might need it, at approximately $9,800 for a month.
In the next year, the state will give Santa Fe agencies $1.4 million for local DWI programs. It would cost almost that much to provide inpatient treatment for the 142 felony DWI offenders charged in the First Judicial District Court here in 2007—but if rehab can cut down on repeat DWIs, it could save money on court costs.
Carmichael moved to Santa Fe from Dallas, which she says offers treatment options "beyond our imagination"—from more inpatient rehab to centers that can accommodate families. "The goal is not to be like Texas," she says. "The goal is to be something better than that."
If DWI dissidents are right, being better demands a whole new approach. So far, though, inertia rules.
"If they were to give me a blank check, I think I'd just probably expand on everything we already do," Beardsley says.
Which would be fine if the state had its priorities straight. "If you look at any budgets, you're always going to see that the majority of monies are put into reacting to the problem versus preventing the problem," Pacheco says.
And what officials tout as proactive measures are actually reactive ones.
Take ignition interlocks, made mandatory in 2005 for first offenders. Interlocks get most of the credit for supposedly reducing drunk driving in New Mexico. At least four shops in Santa Fe can install them; it's a small cottage industry.
Even critics say the interlocks deserve some credit for deterring repeat offenders. But they're only effective up to a point.
"It's ridiculous—let's make this golden bullet, this ignition interlock, be what saves us all," Atkinson of the DWI Resource Center says.
According to DWI Czar O'Connor, approximately half of New Mexico offenders waive the interlock—which would allow them to keep driving legally—and instead promise not to drive during probation.
Yet many continue to drive anyway, in someone else's borrowed car. "I couldn't even begin to tell you" how many, Beardsley says. "I can tell you we see them drive up to the buildings next door."
Those who ignore the interlock rules can't be stopped unless they happen to get caught by police. Some lobby groups, like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, believe the loopholes could be closed by subjecting offenders to even tighter monitoring—including actual home visits by government agents.
MADD and most police also support the ultimate penal approach: holding bartenders responsible for their patrons' conduct.
New Mexico's so-called "third-party liability law," which dates to 1993, provides for fines against a liquor licensee or server who overserves a customer. Police and politicians call it a "valuable tool" against DWI. In practice, it works more like Prohibition Light, giving authorities a way to crack down on bars they don't like.
Albuquerque lawyer Mark Rhodes defends liquor license holders and often tangles with the state police's Special Investigations Division, which investigates third-party liability law violations. "In the course of [one] case, it came out that they were targeting certain bars. There are old memorandums sent to SID agents that these are 'problem bars,'" Rhodes says. "Now it's done verbally."
Rhodes believes the existence of a "problem" list implies the existence of a "protected" list. That's what many New Mexicans suspected when SID failed to cite the Rio Chama bar, where Carlos Fierro and former NMSP Sgt. Lovato racked up a 16-drink tab before Fierro's hit-and-run.
Several weeks after SFR filed a records request, a state police spokesman was still "working" to find out the last time SID agents conducted an enforcement at Rio Chama.
The now-closed WilLee's Blues Club, where Fierro and Lovato drank after leaving Rio Chama, wasn't on the old "problem" list, either. But the bar's owner often said he was targeted by SID agents, undercover and otherwise.
Even if the law is enforced fairly, it misses the point. Only half of the state's drunk drivers had been drinking in bars before their arrests, Atkinson says. The other half bought their booze over the counter. So why all the attention on "problem bars"?
Santa Fe County has tried a few anti-DWI efforts beyond what the state does.
In March, it expanded drug courts to take repeat DWI offenders. But right now, there are only a handful of people in the program, which includes group therapy, acupuncture, alcohol testing and what Beardsley calls "pretty intense" treatment.
Sheriff Solano is working to implement a vehicle impound program for repeat offenders, which Santa Fe County commissioners passed in 2006. He hopes to have the impound lot running within six months, but says the process was delayed by a dispute with the owners of the Rancho Viejo subdivision where it's located.
Both are ideas that have been tried elsewhere and might help. But the most effective solution may be the most counterintuitive: If you can't solve the alcohol problem, work on the auto-mobile problem.
"We do have a bus system," Beardsley says. "These people made a conscious decision to get behind the wheel of the car when they drink and drive."
Of course, buses don't run after the bars close or in rural areas. A number of cities and colleges around the country find it's worth the money to run late-night "drunk buses," as they are informally known, to ferry the soused masses safely.
Santa Fe County has a high desert version of what's known in the trade as a "safe rides" program—but it's tiny and underused.
The county used to operate a free Friday and Saturday night "CADDy" program, so drunk folks could get a cab ride home. As many as 192 people in a single night took free rides home during the program's first month in 2007.
After three months, the county started char-ging $5 a ride and $10 for groups. Participation dropped dramatically, then leveled out, thanks in part to sporadic advertising.
Today, Capital City Cab gives approximately 100 discounted drunk rides every weekend night. Beardsley says many riders are repeat users and visitors who get the number from their hotel concierge. Which means a lot of local partygoers aren't using a service that could prevent crashes—either because they don't know about it or the program doesn't work as advertised.
SFR called the CADDy Hotline—995-9528—during the week, and got messages saying the number had been disconnected. The Santa Fe New Mexican pointed out the same problem last year. (The solution? Tell the cabbie you want the CADDy ride.)
The CADDy program's base budget is only $35,000 a year, though supplemental funds brought it up to $55,000 this year. That's roughly equal to the annual salaries of the two DWI patrol deputies the Sheriff's Office fields on an ordinary night.
So it costs approximately $550 a night to keep 100 potential drunk drivers off the road by giving them a cab ride—a bargain next to the cost of arresting, prosecuting, sentencing and monitoring even one drunk driver who would get caught.
It only makes sense those savings would grow if the program were expanded and Santa Fe hired more cabbies in addition to cops.
"I have mixed feelings," DWI Czar O'Connor says. She thinks safe-ride programs, while probably effective in cities, are no substitute for keeping people sober: "You can't serve somebody as much as you feel like [just because] they have a safe ride."
This attitude is revealing. Because when anti-drunk driving activists talk about "changing the culture," they often mean promoting alcoholic abstinence.
America tried that before. "Prohibition didn't work. We have to look at how we use alcohol," Santa Fe Sobering Center Manager Richard Lucero says. In Europe, he notes, alcohol is "a family ritual at dinnertime, where teenagers are introduced to alcohol, and they use it responsibly."
Crackdowns can backfire. According to a 1923 survey of 30 US cities, cited by the Cato Institute, drunk driving arrests spiked 81 percent under Prohibition.
Back then, of course, there were no interstate highways to speed down.
Remus VanNorman, 28, tells the story of his first DWI last July like this:
He and a buddy were driving toward Santa Fe from a night out in Albuquerque. "I had a couple margaritas. My friend was completely shit-faced and swerving, so I decided to take over the wheel," he says.
State police stopped him for speeding. VanNorman claims they had no basis to stop him, as they didn't have a radar reading. And in his plea deal, Assistant 1st Judicial District Attorney Gilberto Juarez—who, as a new attorney, spends almost all his time prosecuting DWIs—threw out the speeding charge.
VanNorman says he blew barely over the limit—a 0.09—and argues the result could have been a calibration error on the portable police breathalyzer. That's entirely possible; proving inebriation is one reason police complain DWIs are difficult to prosecute. It's also possible VanNorman was too drunk to drive—but nevertheless in far better shape than his passenger.
In any event, police say—and VanNorman admits—he took off running into the woods when he was told he'd be arrested. After getting booked, he served 40 days in jail for violating probation on a previous drug trafficking charge.
The prosecutor thought that was enough. With time served, his punishment amounts to $462 in fines and court costs, probation, community service and an ignition interlock.
"I think that's justice, in this case," Juarez says. So that's one down… SFR