Longform

The Siege

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"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.

Even those who support the notion of taking drunks off the road suggest that the heavy-handed process has left sober citizens feeling harassed. "I've been stopped for weaving," says Joe Gallegos, Mestas's predecessor as sheriff. "I don't even drink. [Undersheriff] Pugliese insisted I had been drinking. I showed him my Diet Pepsi. I told him, 'Take me down to the office and give me a Breathalyzer. If I come out dirty, arrest me. But if I come out clean, I'm going to sue you.' He dropped it."

Three years ago, John Mestas was selling liquor in Fort Garland. Now DUI enforcement has made him the Eliot Ness of southern Colorado. Liquor stores in San Luis report that their sales are off by as much as 80 percent. The two bars in town have cut back hours drastically because of an absence of customers. Whether legally drunk or not, no one wants to take the chance of being stopped with the odor of alcohol on his breath.

"You can't open the bar," complains Sam Medina, who operates the Covered Wagon restaurant and bar. "Nobody will go in there. The cops drive by and take down license numbers. Then they go drink coffee, come back, and if this car or that car is still there, the minute the person leaves the place, they stop them."

Mestas denies that his officers are staking out the bars. "I'm sure their business is off," he says. "People don't go to the bars like they used to. We're living in a different time."

The Medinas, in any case, have their own set of grievances with the sheriff's office. Sam's wife, Teresa, says that deputies burst into their house early one morning and held her on the floor with a gun to her head, traumatizing her four-year-old grandson, while serving an arrest warrant on Sam for cocaine distribution. (Sam later pleaded guilty to a possession charge; Mestas says Teresa interfered with the arrest.) Sam's niece, Betty Medina, was the town clerk until officers came to her house in 1999 to arrest two of her sons on burglary charges; Betty ended up being charged with marijuana possession and "intimidation of a witness." Although her sons were later acquitted and the charges against her were dropped, Betty Medina was recently arrested on a fresh charge of "harboring a fugitive" over another incident involving one of her sons. She says the affair has turned her life upside down and led to relentless harassment by the police, who park outside her house for an hour at a time and routinely stop her kids on the street.

"I lost my job. I lost my car. I was slandered in the newspaper," she says. "I'm not saying my kids are the best kids in the world; they've been in trouble. And I'm not saying they shouldn't do law enforcement. But it doesn't make sense to me to mistreat people the way they do."

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast