Five days after a DWI checkpoint nabbed a dozen allegedly drunk drivers in Garner, a man believed to be intoxicated by drugs struck a pedestrian at the WalMart parking lot just down the street from that checkpoint.
Garner police say they’ve seen DWI arrests rise in the last year, and although increased resources dedicated to the problem can lift numbers, the most recent data indicates a subtle reversal of decades of progress made in fighting drunk driving across the state and nationwide.
“The DWI is still a growing problem in our county. It’s not being reduced any,” Garner Police traffic safety Sgt. Mike McIver said.
McIver said the town has made 39 arrests this year, with two arrested on Memorial Day weekend, despite the fact that McIver said “we tend to find that on holiday weekends everybody’s out of town.” Officer Scott Klein has arrested 20 himself.
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“I’ve always enjoyed getting drunks off the road,” said Klein, who moved into a newly-created state-funded position last fall to focus all-but-exclusively on the problem.
In 2012 (the last full year of available data) North Carolina had about 4.1 fatalities per 100,000 population, up slightly from the previous year. The nation saw a 4.6 percent uptick on the heels of decades of rapidly declining drunk driving fatalities nationwide (a decline that can count increased enforcement, greater public awareness of the danger and safer cars among its difficult-to-isolate explanations). Nearly a third of fatal crashes involve a driver over the legal limit.
Klein believes it indicative of an upward trend of intoxicated driving the last couple years, but said he didn’t know for sure of the primary causes behind it.
Locally, an alleged drunk driver named Jacob Alexander Press stunned Garner last month when he crossed several lanes on I-440 and struck the car driven by former town economic development director Rex Todd, killing him and seriously injuring his wife Mary Lou Todd.
On May 22, James Edward Evans, 59, struck a woman holding a sign on a concrete median at the WalMart entrance with his PT Cruiser. His car struck Jessica Lynn Watson, 25, from behind. Her head struck the windshield before she was tossed to the left side of the car. The vehicle ended up in the ditch on the side of the road in front of the Wendy’s.
Watson escaped major injury and was released from the hospital the same day.
Less than a week before, just a short way up U.S. 401 just before the split with U.S. 70, Garner police teamed with other agencies to create a 30-officer checkpoint. It charged 13 with DWI.
Evans was charged with driving while impaired as well as careless and reckless driving – although police determined he was not drinking.
After police ruled out vehicle malfunction, alcohol and a medical condition, it called in its drug recognition expert. While sometimes suspects use illegal drugs, McIver said people often ignore the warning label on prescription drugs advising them not to operate heavy machinery. Investigators believe Evans was using nervous system depressants as well as pain-killers.
“It carries the same weight as people who drink alcohol,” McIver said of prescription drug warnings. “Most people don’t get that.”
Klein describes driving while on illegal and prescription drugs as a growing trend. Some simply ignore labels while using them for medical purposes, but most arrested, Klein said, use them recreationally and often mixed with alcohol.
“Whether (it’s because) we’re getting more educated about it, it’s a fact that we’re seeing it a lot more and more,” Klein said.
Without specially trained experts adept at identifying drug influence with competence and able to act as experts at trial, convictions can become difficult, especially with prescription medications.
“That is very hard to prove in the court system. That doesn’t mean they’re not as impaired as someone who’s been drinking,” McIver said. “When a(n officer) comes out of this (DRE) course, there’s not a lot anybody can say or do. That person is going to be recognized by the court system as technically an expert.”
Nipping it in the bud
The checkpoint on eastbound U.S. 70 and southbound U.S. 401 near the split at Mechanical Drive on May 17 led to 51 total charges, with the 13 DWI cases leading the way. Another 12 charges of driving with revoked licenses, four drug charges and assorted other citations were issued. Along with DWI, checkpoints and other enforcement efforts also focus on the “Click It or Ticket” campaign.
In 2013, there were roughly 32 DWI arrests from Jan 1 to the end of May according to Grarner’s crime data tracking system. In 2013 that rate increased so that by the end of the year there were over 100 total DWIs during the calendar year.
Klein began focusing on DWIs in October 2013, and McIver said increased enforcement likely had something to do with the increase in arrests. Because of uneven enforcement, he said, pinning down prevalence of DWI can be difficult, but upticks in arrests are generally preferred to more crashes, with the hope that more arrests provides more deterrent.
Klein works a lot of nights and weekends, peak periods for DWIs. He also focuses on particular areas like U.S. 70, major roads where McIver said a high proportion of DWI suspects can be caught.