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Off Limits

In the middle of the night, phones suddenly started ringing in homes across Denver. "This is the Denver Police Department," a voice said when anyone picked up. "Are you sober?" If people answered affirmatively, the cop informed them that someone they knew -- a housemate, lover, husband, wife and/or drinking buddy -- was under arrest for suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol and was in dire need of a ride home from a clean and sober "responsible party."

After 2 a.m. on Saturday, December 11, the lobby of the Denver Police Administration Building at 13th and Cherokee slowly filled with sleepy-eyed, grumbling, messy-haired responsible parties, including an Off Limits operative. It was the first night of The Heat Is On 2004, the ninth installment of Colorado's much-hyped annual holiday drunk-driving crackdown. The Denver cop shop's computer system was down, and DUI detainees were stacking up in the cells below.

The female cop working the front desk, secure behind bulletproof glass, seemed to hold every responsible party directly responsible for the partying of whoever they were coming to rescue. "Big sweep tonight," went her spiel. "Didn't they see it on the news? You'd think people would know better. It's been pretty easy pickings out there."

That same cop also demanded a driver's license of any would-be rescuer, then asked, "Have you been drinking?" No matter how they responded, she came back with, "I smell alcohol. Are you sure you haven't been drinking?"

People who admitted that, in fact, they might have had one or two pops much earlier in the evening were then taken outside the lobby and administered roadside DUI tests right on the spot. At least two responsible parties who failed the test were arrested and charged. One of them protested loudly that he'd come on the bus and was planning to take his friend home in a cab, but the desk cop informed him that he'd been captured on videotape parking his car on the street. (It wasn't clear whether she was referring to the numerous security cameras covering all approaches to the police building, or to the officer with a handheld video camera taping unruly detainees for purposes of acquiring resisting-arrest evidence.)

When our operative got the "I smell alcohol" routine, he didn't admit to drinking -- but was taken outside for testing, anyway. He curtailed the process by asking the officer to just give him a damn breathalyzer, already, then blew a 0.0. Meanwhile, the desk cop ran his ID for outstanding warrants and came up empty, too. "You'd be surprised how many people show up here either drunk or with a warrant for their arrest, or both," she told him.

Since The Heat Is On was introduced in 1996, Colorado law-enforcement agencies have netted more than 32,000 DUI arrests. The yearly holiday crackdowns are funded by $1.8 million in state and federal grants, which pay for officer overtime and portable breathalyzers; that funding has already been renewed for next year. During the first weekend of this year's operation, Denver's DUI patrol officers made 33 arrests through traffic stops and roadside tests.

The following Friday, December 17, the DPD held a press conference heralding the second weekend of the program, which continues through New Year's Eve. Spokesman Sonny Jackson stressed the fact that this year's Heat Is On is the first since Colorado's DUI limit was lowered from .10 to .08. Aided by Carol Walker of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association, he then detailed the average of $9,000 in court fees, fines and insurance-rate hikes that a first DUI conviction racks up.

Their presentation would have greatly benefited from a Scared Straight-style, firsthand account from one or more of the previous Saturday's arrestees, including the 31-year-old film editor whom the Off Limits operative went to pick up. His story went like this: A friend from out of town was driving from one club to the next and went the wrong way down a one-way street. "I realized he shouldn't have been driving, so I told him to pull over, and I got behind the wheel," the arrestee told our operative on the way home. "Unfortunately, a cop had already seen us, and as soon as I moved the car, he pulled me over. I got busted for drunk driving, but I only drove about thirty feet."

He was intending to drive quite a bit farther, though, and after failing the roadside tests, he blew a .10. "I wasn't wasted, but I shouldn't have been driving," he acknowledges. The cops took him to the downtown jail, where they handcuffed him to a metal bench next to a guy with a gold tooth. "As soon as I saw him, I was like, &'No way am I hammered enough to be hanging with the homeboy here,' because he was seriously drunk," he said. "I was a little nervous at first about being handcuffed next to him, like I was only going to have one arm to fight back with, but he started calling me 'cellie' right away, so I knew we were down. The cops told me I had two phone calls, and if I couldn't find a sober responsible party, I was going to have to spend the night in detox. My biggest problem at that point was figuring out which of my friends might be sober enough to come get me on a Friday night.

"Meanwhile, Mr. Gold Tooth keeps repeating his wife's cell-phone number to me, making me say it back to him over and over. He must have done this like 1,000 times. I think the cops had already called her, and she was refusing to come get him, but he was too wasted to understand what was going on. I basically spent three hours with this drunk guy with a gold tooth yelling the same phone number at me, over and over. He made me promise to call her. I guess I'd better do it."

With that, the fresh release punched the sequence into his cell phone, whose clock read 4:25 a.m. "Yes, hi, ma'am?" he said. "I was just in jail with your husband, and he asked me to call you and say he needs a ride if you're sober."

From behind the wheel, our operative could hear the yammering.

"Ma'am, no, look, I'm not down at the jail anymore," he said. "I can't tell your husband anything. I'm just trying to be a nice guy here. Okay. I see. Well, maybe you should just go bust him out, then. Right. Okay. Have a good night."

He hung up the phone and laughed.

"She says she can't go get his ass because she's got a warrant."

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