Buzz kill

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The clock has just stuck 12 on a dark road in Veguita. Someone just shot off some fireworks about a quarter mile away. Somebody else is firing off a gun. A few hoots and hollers from revelers can be heard in the distance. And Socorro County Sheriff’s Deputy Casey Spurgin is about to make his first DWI arrest of 2012.

“I can already tell you’ve had more than one shot,” he tells Jesus, a 22-year-old down from Albuquerque to celebrate the new year with his family, after the deputy led the suspected drunk driver through the first of a series of field sobriety tests.

By no small coincidence, it’s the second time Spurgin has busted Jesus for DWI. Statistics show that nearly a third of DWI offenders in Socorro County are picked up a second time.

Only this time, “It was the marijuana that got him,” Spurgin says.

Jesus did eventually blow over the presumed legal limit for alcohol back at the Socorro Police Department where tests were conducted. But it was the pipe and small plastic bag containing a leafy substance believed to be marijuana found in the front pocket of Jesus’ baggy pants that cinched it.

Theresa Rosales, DWI compliance officer for Socorro County, says DWI isn’t just for alcohol anymore.

“We’re seeing more and more cases of other substances,” she says.

Statistics aren’t in for 2011, but 198 DWI cases passed through either Magistrate or District Court in Socorro in 2010. The conviction rate is about 70 percent, which Rosales finds frustrating.

“Things end up getting pled down,” she says. “I understand in saves money, but we had one man who was arrested 12 times. He’s in prison now, but it should never be allowed to go that far.”

Rosales says statistics from the Department of Health show that Socorro County ranks second in the state for repeat arrests, with 30.1 percent of DWI offenders between 2002 and 2009 getting picked up a second time.

“That’s nothing to be proud of,” she says.

Rosales takes some pride in saying there hasn’t been a DWI fatality in the county since 2009. That year, eight people died in accidents that involved DWI drivers.

All police can do is do their best to keep impaired drivers off the road.

Jesus was one of six people arrested in Socorro County for DWI on New Year’s night. Socorro Police Department nabbed five others on what was a busy night for law enforcement officials.

On the Edge

In his three years with the sheriff’s department, Deputy Spurgin has built a bit of a reputation.

Trouble seems to find him — or more likely it’s the other way around.

“Casey gets into a lot of stuff,” says Undersheriff Les Torres, who arranged for a reporter to go on a “ride along” New Year’s night.

“I don’t know why, but I seem to find it,” says Spurgin, an affable and energetic 36-year old, as he pilots his patrol car at 100 mph down the interstate en route to Veguita. “I’ve been shot at twice and been involved in three pursuits … I came back from Iraq to do this — to keep an edge.”

What Spurgin thinks give him an edge is his keen sense of awareness and ability to read into details.

“I think it’s just realizing what I’m noticing,” he says. “I see something that’s unusual, or out of the ordinary and I’ll hone in on that.”

Spurgin says opportunity also has something to do with it. He works the night shift most often, and he likes it that way. Officers deal with a lot of nuisance calls during the day, he says, and he’s more cut out for what comes after dark.

“Everybody likes to come out and play at night,” he says.

And a lot of times it involves alcohol. It’s also when the majority of domestic violence calls come in.

About a mile from the Lemitar exit, Spurgin notices a car traveling at a speed well below the speed limit. He slows down and follows it down the exit ramp. Nothing out of the ordinary occurs between there and the driveway the car pulls into after turning down a side street. Spurgin drives on, gets on the frontage road and soon has the car back up to speed on the two-lane road.

“Did Les tell you to bring a helmet?” he asks his passenger.

Answering the Call

Spurgin is one of just three sheriff’s deputies on duty this night. Manuel Monte is working the west end of the county. James Nance is up north, where most of the action occurs.

“Eight out of 10 calls we get are from up north,” Spurgin says.

At 11:15 p.m., shortly after getting back on I-25 at San Acacia, Spurgin gets a call from dispatch. A report of a loud party and shots being fired on Badger Road in Veguita.

On another night, “shots fired” would be greater cause for alarm. On New Year’s Eve, it’s more likely people recklessly shooting off guns in the air.

Spurgin radios to Nance and arranges to rendezvous with him on N.M. 307. They meet up 10 minutes later and Spurgin leads the way into the neighborhood.

The deputy rolls down the windows and slows to a crawl. Spanish music is blaring from one residence, but two sets of gunshots are heard coming from a different direction.

Spurgin drives past the house, then double backs and pulls up the driveway. He and Nance approach the home with flashlights drawn and the music stops. After a brief conversation, the deputies walk away and are bid New Year’s best wishes by the hosts. The music is turned back on at a lower volume and the party resumes.

With Nance in an SUV behind him, Spurgin pulls out of the driveway with headlights turned off. He drives a little further up Badger Road, stops the car and listens.

Under Arrest

There’s just 12 minutes left in 2011 when Spurgin sees a car back out of a driveway a block up the road. Spurgin pulls out to follow.

“I didn’t see him use a turn signal, did you?” he says when the car makes a left turn.

Spurgin takes the same turn and hits the emergency lights. The car pulls over. Spurgin turns on and adjusts a spotlight to illuminate the scene for the dashboard-mounted camera, gets out and approaches the vehicle.

A few minutes later, Jesus exits from behind the wheel. In the car with him are his girlfriend and a toddler.

Spurgin explains to Jesus he’s going to put him through a series of field sobriety tests, the first following Spurgin’s finger with his eyes while keeping his head stationary.

It’s midnight now, and while the sounds of celebration echo in the cold night air, Jesus is experiencing a major buzzkill. Spurgin is making him walk a straight line, nine steps heel-to-toe, then stand on one leg with the other elevated.

Spurgin has seen enough. By now he knows that Jesus has two warrants on him out of Belen. He tells Jesus he’s under arrest and recites his rights. Meanwhile, Nance cuffs Jesus’s hands behind his back.

The girlfriend, crying and carrying their child, is out of the car and wants to know what’s going to happen next. Phone calls are made to arrange for family to pick up the car and take the mother and child away.

“It’s going to be all right,” Jesus assures them before departing.

For his part, Jesus took it like a man. He blamed only himself for what happened.

“It’s OK, I know you’re just doing your job,” he tells Spurgin while being placed in the back seat of the patrol car. “I know I’m responsible for what I did.”

Ever Diligent

On the ride to Socorro, Jesus tells Spurgin his sob story, not expecting any sympathy.

He recalls their first meeting when Spurgin busted him for drunk driving in the same area. Jesus says his life was “messed up” then, but he’s starting to get back on track. He got a job as a mechanic about two weeks ago and is now living in Albuquerque, trying to support his girlfriend and their child. They have another one on the way.

“I’m trying to straighten out. I’m trying to get out of this hell hole,” he says, sounding sincere.

Jesus was honest with Spurgin, admitting he had been drinking that night and it was a pipe in his pocket when he was patted down. He says he last smoked about an hour before he left his auntie’s house, where he had been pacing his alcohol consumption since about 8 p.m.

“I was trying to keep it measured,” he says.

“Well, you didn’t get the measurement quite right,” Spurgin responds.

Racing down the interstate, Spurgin comes up on another car traveling unusually slow. He tails it and notices that it’s veering from one side of the lane to the other, once riding over the center stripes.

He turns on the emergency lights and pulls over the car.

“Hang on, Jesus,” who by now has requested a bathroom break. “We’re just gonna make a quick stop and we’ll be back on the road in just a minute.”

Spurgin says a car traveling below the speed limit is often an indication of a drunk driver trying to keep the road beneath them from rushing by so fast. It’s either that or an elderly driver, he says, and that was the case this time.

Busy Night in Town

At 1:07 a.m., Spurgin and his suspect arrive at the police station. Jesus agrees to provide a breathe sample, which registers results of 0.09 and 0.08 — just over and right at the presumed level of intoxication under state law.

With that business out of the way, Spurgin un-cuffs Jesus and escorts him to the bathroom.

About 1:15, a call comes in reporting a fight at a New Year’s party being held at the Garcia Opera House. The three officers at the station don’t budge. Socorro Police has 12 other officers out on the streets, and they’re already on it.

It has been an eventful night already, Officer Luis Chavez says. The police have made three DWI arrests and picked up four or five people on outstanding warrants. And it’s still early.

“The last three years or so have been quiet,” Chavez comments. “I don’t know what it is this year. Maybe because of all the snow we had everyone’s been couped up, and now they’re ready to come out.”

Chavez says one of the three DWI arrests was for actually for methamphetamine, not alcohol.

“The excuse she gave was that she was only doing it to show her boyfriend what he’s like when he’s on meth,” says Chavez, who thought he had heard ‘em all.

By now, the bathroom break is over. Spurgin sits down to complete the paperwork and then explains the charges to Jesus.

He’s only getting a warning for failing to use his turn signal, but he is being charged for DWI, having an open container of alcohol in the car, driving under a suspended or revoked license, possession of drug paraphernalia and possession of less than an ounce of marijuana.

Spurgin asks Jesus if he understands the charges and has him sign the papers. Then it’s back in the car for the short ride to the detention center where Jesus will be booked.

New Year’s Resolution

It’s 1:25 a.m. when they arrive at the jail. They walk in on the scene of a jail employee sweeping a pool of water from the hallway.

“We’re having another exciting night here, as you can see,” Detention Officer Chris Zamora says in greeting.

Seems the detainees weren’t happy that officials wouldn’t turn the lights on at midnight and expressed their displeasure by flooding their cells.

Spurgin and his detainee step around the puddle. Jesus’s possessions are inventoried and more paperwork is filled out. Spurgin says later this single arrest will generate several more hours of paperwork before it’s all said and done.

Not all DWI incidents end this well. The detainee and his arresting officer sounded a bit like two old friends when they bid farewell.

“Be a little smarter next time… don’t let there be a next time,” Spurgin says.

Jesus assures him there won’t and, free from Spurgin’s cuffs, extends his hand in thanks.

“Don’t worry. I’m going to straighten out my ways,” he says, making a New Year’s resolution he promises to keep.

 


-- Email the author at tslast@dchieftain.com.