Fill'er Up

For several years, Rudy Reveles, a young attorney with the state's public defenders' office, represented the indigent and the criminally accused of Trinidad, a city of 9,700 in Las Animas County, from an office in Pueblo. But by September 1995, the business of defending Trinidad's poor had become so big that the state decided to open a satellite operation there. What Reveles found was sobering.

Trinidad sits on Colorado's southern border at the bottom of Raton Pass, which climbs to nearly 8,000 feet in the Culebra Range before dropping into New Mexico. In 1867 prospectors blasted into the range and opened the area's first coal mine. Other prospectors followed, but recent economics have been unable to support the mines, and one by one they have closed. Today, public-assistance levels in the town are high. So are the problems associated with poverty and joblessness: Las Animas County ranks twelfth out of the 63 Colorado counties both in per capita DUI cases and in alcohol-related driving fatalities.

The area's liquor problem is no secret, and it is self-acknowledged. Nevertheless, in May 1993 a private company closed the doors of its three-year-old Trinidad alcohol-detoxification facility--the only one in town. Despite generous city subsidies, the owner said, there just weren't enough clients to justify staying open.

For the next two years, though, Trinidad's elected officials and law enforcement officers made it clear that they were desperate to get the local detox center back. Part of the reason was a recognition of the city's struggle with alcohol. And part of it was that the Las Animas County jail was perpetually full: Frequently, there was no room for those who were detained for minor, alcohol-related offenses, and a nearby detox would help ease the strain.

So Trinidad officials pleaded with the state to help fund the center. In exchange, they pledged to do whatever it took to make it worthwhile for the Crossroads Managed Care detox facility to reopen. Finally, on July 1, 1995, their efforts paid off; the center swung open its doors once again.

But have Trinidad's law enforcement officials gone too far in their campaign to make sure the local drunk tank stays full? The day before the local Crossroads facility reopened, Chief of Police James Montoya sent a memo to all his officers. Their aggressive assistance, he reminded them, would be required to keep the city's detox center in business.

"The detox will remain available contingent on full utilization," he wrote. "A great deal of cooperation, effort and resources went into the re-opening of this facility. If client referrals are not frequently made, the facility will not remain available." Client referrals, of course, meant police officers bringing in drunks.

A reception in honor of the detox center's reopening was attended by Trinidad's mayor and city council members, the county sheriff and Chief Montoya. Reveles didn't make the festivities. But he soon began to hear about Crossroads from his new clients.

"It's nothing I went looking for," he explains. "It just jumped out at me. What caught my attention was that people were coming to me and telling me that they were routinely getting hauled off to detox and locked up for two to three days, often independent of how much alcohol they had consumed. And I began wondering: Do we have prohibition in Trinidad?"

Getting drunk is not against the law in Colorado; in fact, state law specifically prohibits police from charging anyone with a crime simply for being intoxicated. Yet over the past two years, it has become common knowledge among those who drink in Trinidad that being caught after having a few--regardless of whether you are bothering anyone and, at times, regardless of even how much you have imbibed--can have serious consequences.

Indeed, ever since Crossroads reopened, Trinidad police have not stopped at detaining just bothersome drunks. They have hauled people off the street while they were quietly walking home. They have pulled passengers from vehicles--whose drivers weren't even drunk--and thrown them into the local tank. They have even entered people's homes, removed the residents forcibly and taken them to the detox facility; one woman was just getting into bed.

Nor has Crossroads necessarily released these people once they were sober. Visitors have been confined in the facility against their will for as long as five days.

Erica Fabec wasn't even drunk. Now a junior accounting major with a 3.68 GPA at the University of Colorado, Fabec had returned to Trinidad in October 1995 for her first visit home since moving to Boulder a month before. She and two friends drove to a party in the woods at the edge of town, where she socialized with old high-school buddies and drank a couple of beers out of a plastic cup before deciding to head for home.

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer