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Driving Blind

Politicians say they’re solving the drunk driving problem. They’re not.

May 13, 2009, 12:00 am

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.”

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NMDOT/Jake Schoellkopf

Fake drunks walk the line in a police photo op as part of a February state press conference announcing a 35 percent drop in alcohol-related fatalities.

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.”

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