FRISCO — A traveler being pulled over for driving under the influence is common in Summit County.
The Fifth Judicial District — composed of Summit, Lake, Eagle and Clear Creek counties and nestled among a number of other trouble areas in northwest Colorado — reports the second highest rate of DUIs per capita in the state.
The underlying causes of the area’s problem are varied and inflated by tourists flocking to the county during high seasons in winter and summer along with a culture of heavy substance use among visitors and residents.
Punishments for getting behind the wheel while impaired can also be wide ranging, including losing your driver’s license, hefty fines and even significant jail time in more serious cases. But according to officials, many community members don’t fully understand the potential consequences of a DUI offense or what to expect when they first see the flashing lights in their rearview mirror.
The idea of getting pulled over is never a fun prospect, and while sober drivers are more likely to leave the interaction with an officer’s business card than a ticket, anyone exhibiting clear signs of intoxication could be in for a long night.
“The biggest thing is that we consider a totality of the circumstances,” said Summit County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Mark Gafari, who allowed the Summit Daily News to participate in a ride-along earlier this month to get a first-hand look at how law enforcement agents patrol the area and what they’re looking for in regard to impaired drivers.
“Alcohol can affect people very differently,” Gafari said. “It depends on if they ate, how much, are they used to drinking and a number of other factors. For us, it comes down to the driving actions and our personal observations. But we also have to remember that someone could be driving poorly because they’re lost, or they could be having a medical episode or something else. Our job is to go and have a polite conversation and check what’s going on.”
Getting pulled over
Gafari said impaired driving arrests are largely based around three factors. The first is called “vehicle in motion” observations, or the reason a traffic stop was initiated in the first place, such as a driver weaving on the roadway, driving at unusually slow or fast speeds, or exhibiting delayed or strange reactions like stopping at a green light among other possible reasons.
The second factor is observations during the “personal contact” phase, in which an officer will try to determine if the abnormal driving behavior may be related to substance use, such as a strong smell of alcohol, slurred speech, trouble understanding an officer’s questions, slow reactions when handing over paperwork and more.
If an officer feels inebriation might be a contributor to the strange driving behavior, the driver will be asked to complete a standard field sobriety test — three roadside maneuvers that have been scientifically validated to obtain indicators of impairment based on International Association of Chiefs of Police and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration standards.
The tests include looking for a horizontal gaze nystagmus (involuntary jerking of the eyes), a walk and turn, and one-leg stand.
“We try to do all we can to consider everything that might be going on and give them a chance and have a conversation with them,” Gafari said. “Because there may be things I don’t know, and it’s important for us to be human about it and explain the reason for the stop and why we’re doing what we’re doing.
“But if I think you may be unsafe to operate a motor vehicle, I may want to check, and the voluntary roadside maneuver is the best way to do that. That totality — including the driving behavior and our interaction — will come together to determine if you’re placed into custody for suspicion of DUI or not.”
After an arrest
If the driver is taken into custody, they’ll be asked to submit to their choice of a chemical blood or breath test under the state’s express consent law. In Colorado, and the rest of the nation, drivers give consent to be tested when they’re applying for their driver’s license. If substances other than alcohol are suspected, the test has to be a blood test. Blood tests are performed by medical professionals, who typically take two samples to be sent to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation and an independent lab of the suspect’s choosing for analysis.
“When you sign on the dotted line on the application for a driver’s license, you’re consenting, when reasonably requested, to give a blood or breath test,” Fifth Judicial District Attorney Bruce Brown said. “They can’t just pull you over for speeding and ask for a test. They have to have a reasonable suspicion that you were driving under the influence.”
Drivers can refuse to submit to a test, though that triggers an automatic yearlong suspension of their driving privileges by the Colorado Department of Revenue.
Beyond criminal charges, driving under the influence cases also can include a substantial administrative process at the Department of Revenue’s Division of Motor Vehicles. For example, if a breath or blood test returns a blood alcohol content of 0.08 or above — the national threshold for DUI offenses — the DMV automatically will revoke that individual’s right to drive for 9-24 months depending on whether they’re a repeat offender.
A driver can have their driving privileges reinstated earlier in most cases, even as soon as one month — or two months if they refused a blood or breath test — though that typically involves agreeing to install an interlock device in their car, essentially a “blow-and-go” breathalyzer that prevents the car from starting if any alcohol is detected.
“It’s understandable people get lost in that quagmire because it seems like the court is the place to address this,” said Summit County Judge Edward Casias, who handles a majority of the county’s DUI cases. “That’s purely an administrative process, and the court has nothing to do with it. I can’t order the DMV to let someone drive.”
After an arrest, offenders will typically be booked into the jail, fingerprinted, photographed, released on bond — usually about $1,000 on a first offense — and are either issued a summons to return to court or appear before a judge. After the first advisement, there’s usually a period between hearings so the alleged offender can review their police reports, properly understand their charges, consult with an attorney and determine what path to take — whether it’s pleading guilty, preparing a defense or providing new information to the District Attorney’s Office.
Going to court
According to Brown, first-time DUI offenders frequently negotiate a settlement to a less severe charge of driving while ability impaired (DWAI), and a huge majority of offenders end up pleading guilty.
“Over 90% of people who are charged with driving under the influence end up pleading guilty,” Brown said. “About 5% of those cases are dismissed or reduced to a charge less than a DWAI, and 5% or less would go to trial. That’s based on a nationwide statistical analysis, and we’ve done them here, and we are pretty consistent.”
According to the 2019 Driving Under the Influence of Drugs and Alcohol report prepared by the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice, suspects were found guilty in more than 81% of DUI cases in 2017 statewide, and cases were dismissed in 9.7% of cases.
Driving under the influence charges are typically misdemeanor offenses, but can rise to the level of a felony for individuals with three prior convictions. By Colorado statute, the possible penalties for a DUI offense typically include five days to a year in jail (not mandatory), a $600-$1,000 fine, 48-96 hours of useful public service, an alcohol evaluation, DUI classes and treatment, and the likely suspension of the driver’s license along with court fees. Penalties for a DWAI are somewhat less severe, including a potential two to 180 days in jail, a $200-$500 fine, 24-48 hours of useful public service, an alcohol evaluation, classes, court costs and eight points off the driver’s license.
Casias said individuals with aggravating factors in their cases, such as a high blood alcohol content, also could get supervised probation as part of their sentence, which requires an additional $600 supervision fee per year. Casias also noted that he’ll almost always include at least a small jail sentence for anyone who comes in with a blood alcohol content higher than 0.159.
“It’s more than twice the legal limit and over three times the limit for a DWAI,” Casias said. “That indicates the person definitely should have felt it and should have known they were too drunk to get behind the wheel. So they’re going to do a weekend in jail.”
But offenders typically end up paying more than just fines, and the costs can add up. With court costs and required treatment classes alone — not factoring in potential costs of an interlock device, attorney fees, rising insurance costs or any loss of wages — a first-time DWAI offender will end up paying about $1,971, according to Casias. For a first-time DUI offender, the price tag goes up to about $2,560. These numbers assume the lowest level education and treatment course, which requires 21 weeks of treatment and 12 weeks of education courses at $35 a session.
Brown said driver’s can receive some form of DUI charge even if their blood alcohol content doesn’t reach the presumptive limits for a DUI (0.08) or DWAI (0.05), but said it’s fairly rare.
The punishments get more severe for reoffenders, though Brown said sentences for first-time offenders are designed to send a message and hopefully push that individual into making better decisions in the future or seeking out substance use treatment, if necessary.
“If you go out and talk to your friends or co-workers, many people have suffered a DUI,” Brown said. “So the fact that someone is convicted doesn’t become a moral judgment but an indicator that they might have a substance abuse problem. The primary purpose is to make sure that they get an opportunity to recognize the danger involved, to understand their relationship with alcohol and that they may have behavior that needs to be changed.”
To that end, every offender is asked to complete an alcohol and drug education course or, in more severe cases, months of education courses and treatment programs.
For individuals in treatment, sessions are largely based around removing the shame around the offense, increasing awareness and responsibility, and better understanding the circumstances behind the offense.
“I think it’s really important that people understand that this can happen to anybody,” said Andrea Brown, a substance use counselor at Alpine Springs Counseling, who teaches courses out of Breckenridge. “I’ve had first responders, attorneys and everyone else. But this treatment is absolutely, though frustrating, essential. It can help people make better decisions and take the shame out of the equation. It’s also important that people know they’ll be treated respectfully when they come into one of our groups.”
While the education groups are fairly structured, with an actual curriculum mandated by the state, Andrea Brown said counseling sessions are much more flexible allowing participants to push the conversation in the direction most useful to them, whether that means discussions around what is contributing to the area’s problems, overcoming triggers or other topics.
According to Andrea Brown, the classes often pay dividends for participants.
“I’ve only seen a couple of instances where people have come back into the system,” she said. “That doesn’t mean it’s perfect, but it does mean the average person has learned something, even if it’s just that they can download Uber. I think what we’re seeing is that it’s not just teaching them about sobriety. We’re not here to make you feel bad about drinking but rather looking at where your drinking leads to poor decision making that resulted in getting in a car. We’re looking at how we can have a more healthy awareness of how to care for ourselves and other people. I do think these groups help dramatically.”