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Driving Blind

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

May 13, 2009, 12:00 am


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.

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Corey Pein

NMSP Officers Steven Carroll and Sam Sena witness the flaws in drunk driving measures firsthand.

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.”

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