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Drive drunk -- go to jail: Kenai, Soldotna police, troopers step up holiday patrols

Posted: Tuesday, December 22, 2009

DUIs seemed to follow Alaska Bureau of Highway Patrol Sgt. Eugene Fowler Friday night. A few loops through Nikiski's snow-covered roads and there was hardly a vehicle to be found. A few minutes later, while Fowler conducted a routine traffic stop heading back toward Kenai, another officer radioed dispatch to say he would be conducting a field sobriety test in Nikiski.

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Photo By M. Scott Moon
Photo By M. Scott Moon
Alaska State Trooper Sgt. Eugene Fowler uses a flashlight to assess Tasha Thompson's eyes during a traffic stop for a faulty tail light near Sterling early Sunday morning. Thompson was given a "fix-it" ticket for the light.

"That's the second time tonight," Fowler said when listening to the call. It was the second time Friday night that an officer had a possible DUI case in an area where Fowler had recently patrolled. It's not that Fowler was missing anything, he just didn't happen to be in the same place at the same time as any drunken drivers.

"You just never know," Fowler said.

Really, it doesn't matter to Fowler whether he or someone else makes the arrest. The goal is simply to stop drivers who are operating vehicles while under the influence of any impairing substance.

By participating in the national "Drunk Driving. Over the limit. Under arrest" campaign along with the Kenai and Soldotna police departments and by increasing officer overtime courtesy of state funding, the Soldotna troopers and other local law enforcement agencies are hoping to ensure that if Fowler isn't in the area to stop a drunken driver, someone else will be.

The holiday season, a time for joy, is also a time of DUI awareness. You've probably seen the ghost of DUI past, present and future commercials on television or heard Soldotna Police Chief John Lucking's ad on local radio.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's campaign aims to crack down on impaired driving by putting more officers on the streets and by heightening public awareness about the dangers of driving while intoxicated. The campaign runs from Dec. 16 to Jan. 3.

"There's a lot more party-goers and events going on during the holidays. With the campaign, we're trying to remind people that they should take a cab or get home safely with a designated driver," said Kenai police Inv. Jay Sjogren, a law enforcement liaison to NHTSA. "They need to prepare for a night of activities."

If they aren't prepared to get home safely, Sjogren and other officers said, they should be prepared to get caught.

"We will be adjusting our shifts and using Alaska Highway Safety Office funded overtime to provide additional enforcement and high visibility deterrence to those who might consider driving impaired this holiday season," said Kenai Police Sgt. Dave Ross.

But Kenai and other local law enforcement units know even though holiday cheer often involves holiday beer, driving drunk isn't just a problem during the most festive time of year.

Between 2006 and 2008, the Kenai Police department averaged approximately 98 DUI arrests per year, according to Ross. During the holiday season - Nov. 15 to Jan. 5 - DUI arrests don't see an increase compared to the rest of the year. That time frame, which comprises about 13 percent of the calendar, accounts for approximately 13 percent of the Kenai Police Department's DUI arrests, according to Ross.

Similarly, Soldotna patrol troopers had 61 DUI cases in January, November and December in 2009 and had 76 cases between July and September.

Consequently, DUIs are an issue that local law enforcement tries to crack down on all year long.

For instance, the state safety office awarded the city of Kenai a grant in August to purchase nine Digital Ally rear-view-mirror mounted video systems for patrol vehicles and nine portable breath testers. That equipment helped launch an "All Eyes on DUIs" program to combat drinking and driving in all seasons.

Kenai Police Sgt. Scott McBride said the department has equipped most patrol cars, and the number of recent DUI arrests has seemed to increase, though he was speaking only on anecdotal evidence.

Sjogren said state funding becomes available during the holidays, allowing for more officers on the streets. But local units also ramp up efforts around the Fourth of July, the Super Bowl and St. Patrick's Day. Sjogren said people should use these times of extra enforcement as a reminder.

"Ramped up and more focused enforcement during holidays should be a good indicator that it's not just a one-time-a-year thing," Sjogren said. "People should choose not to drink and drive all year long."

The overall goal, Sjogren said, is to combat drinking and driving's devastating effects.

There were nearly 12,000 alcohol-impaired fatalities in the United States in 2008, according to the NHTSA. Of 62 vehicle fatalities in Alaska in 2008, 21 involved at least one driver with a blood alcohol content of .08 or higher, according to NHTSA.

For every 100 million vehicle miles traveled in the state of Alaska in 2008, there were .43 alcohol-impaired traffic fatalities. The national rate is .40 per 100 million miles, according to NHTSA.

Aside from the deadly consequences, DUIs carry legal ramifications. A DUI can either be classified as a class A misdemeanor or a class C felony, depending on the circumstances.If it's a first-time offense, the person can expect to pay a $1,500 fine and spend 72 hours in jail. The jail time and fines increase rapidly if the person has been previously convicted. A third DUI within 10 years constitutes a felony, according to state statute, and could carry a $10,000 fine and at least 120 days in jail.

Be warned, officers say, if you choose not to follow the law and get behind the wheel while impaired, you're likely to end up with a police or trooper's lights following you - especially during the holiday crack down.

"It's a staunch reminder," Sjogren said. "Like the rest of the year, we mean business."

Reporter Andrew Waite can be reached at andrew.waite@peninsulaclarion.com.



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