The Siege

The new sheriff vowed to clean up the town of San Luis. For many locals, the price was too high.

"I'm probably the first sheriff elected here who wasn't from here," he notes. "But I just felt I could make a difference. Living in the community and seeing the gangs that were running around, and people being afraid of sitting on their front porches, and listening to people say they were buying weapons for self-protection -- everything was totally out of control."

Mestas inherited a decrepit office and a 35-year-old jail so forlorn that it would soon be condemned by the county commissioners. With the aid of federal and state grants, he acquired more patrol cars, boosted the number of full-time deputies from six to ten, and embarked on a $650,000 renovation of the jail and sheriff's office. According to some guests, the jail still has plumbing and safety problems; Mestas boasts of improved security (passersby are no longer hooted at by inmates hanging out of windows, for example) and a planned expansion.

The new sheriff wasted no time putting his new patrol units on the streets of San Luis. An unbroken double yellow line and signs banning U-turns spanned the length of Main Street, but they had been routinely ignored by locals whose errands took them to businesses on both sides of the street. (The alternative would be to drive through the entire town, then loop back.) Mestas's deputies started handing out tickets for U-turns, and the complaints from angry motorists and incensed business owners poured into the town hall. Before long, the town council voted to remove the "No U-Turn" signs.

Another of Cynthia Devereaux's pictures.
Another of Cynthia Devereaux's pictures.
Total recall: Local editor Bob Green says it was easy to be a popular cop in San Luis -- until now.
Brett Amole
Total recall: Local editor Bob Green says it was easy to be a popular cop in San Luis -- until now.

In other areas, though, the sheriff wasn't so easily deterred. Increased traffic enforcement translated into increased county revenue from fines, and county officials supported the effort by approving a model traffic code that spelled out a host of violations. Citations for speeding took a sizable leap.

"People don't agree with the speed-limit signs, but we aren't the ones who post them," the sheriff says. "The policy of this department has always been that we allow ten miles per hour over the speed limit before we stop them. If people say they've been stopped for less, they're lying."

County court records do show a few citations issued to people for going less than nine or even less than five miles over the limit. They also show that a number of people have sought to contest the tickets, arguing that since the crackdown began they've been careful to drive under the limit, but the deputy claims they're speeding anyway. Such arguments, which pit the driver's word against the officer's, have had little success.

A deluge of speeding tickets (and the resulting hike in insurance rates) was only the beginning. Motorists in Costilla County soon learned there was no end to the petty infractions for which they could be pulled over, from a faulty license-plate bulb to "failure to count to five" at a stop sign before proceeding. Failure to signal a turn at a four-way stop, whether there's another car in sight or not. Failure to signal a turn into your own driveway. Driving too fast for the weather conditions. Driving too slow. Driving the speed limit but "impeding a semi."

"You can't even cruise the town anymore," says Maria Martinez, one of the leaders of the recall effort. "They were giving tickets for everything and anything. We asked them to give warnings, but they kept at it. My brother hadn't had a ticket in thirty years, and he got one for not using his signal at a four-way stop; the deputies were hiding behind the bridge. I called Mestas to ask why he was doing a speed trap like that. He said that's law enforcement."

"My husband and I have both had them pull up on your tail and follow you all the way home," says recall supporter Tonya Sipple. "You know they're running your plates and waiting for you to do something wrong. My neighbor was pulled over late one night and told, 'You look lost.'"

"One of their favorite things at night is to stay on your bumper," Cynthia Devereaux agrees. "It seems like their brights are on, and when you try to adjust to it, they stop you for 'weaving.'"

The sheriff's critics say his deputies will use any flimsy excuse to pull a car over, as long as it gives them a chance to sniff the driver's breath. The real prize lurking behind every nuisance stop, they charge, is the possibility of a drunk-driving arrest. The year before Mestas took office, there were about a dozen DUI arrests in the county. In 1999 the count skyrocketed to 88, with another 75 last year. The two-year total is an astonishing number; it works out to roughly one drunk-driving bust for every twelve drivers in the county.

Mestas doesn't see why anyone would have a problem with vigorous DUI enforcement. "People here don't understand that it's illegal to drink and drive," he says. "Personally, I feel we've saved lives."

But some people caught in the dragnet tell another story. There's Danny Garcia, who says he was arrested at his house and charged with a DUI when he hadn't been behind the wheel all day. (The case was later dismissed.) Garcia also claims to have taken a Breathalyzer after another arrest, only to have the paperwork come back showing that he refused one. Then there's the young woman who drove fifteen miles to town last winter to report that her boyfriend had beaten her. The woman admitted she'd been drinking; she also said she was afraid to stay at her residence. After her injuries were treated, she was charged with a DUI and sent to detox.

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