DUII Season

DUII Season

A hit-and-run crash that awoke a west Medford neighborhood early Saturday could have been much worse, but regardless it had a familiar and often deadly cause.

Medford police Officer Shawn Vollrath surveyed the damage caused when a Ford Explorer plowed into a Pontiac Grand Am, lifting it off West Jackson Street and depositing it onto the owner's yard.

"We found an Illinois license plate that led us to the suspect's house," Vollrath said. "Even for DUII crashes, this is pretty extreme."

Vollrath tracked the Explorer's owner to a home in the 500 block of Palm Street, just around the corner.

At the home, Vollrath arrested the Explorer's owner — Henry Paul Wells — who is deaf, on suspicion of driving under the influence of intoxicants, hit-and-run and reckless driving.

Wells was taken to Medford's detox center, where a Breathalyzer test showed his blood alcohol level stood at 0.13 percent — well above the legal driving limit of 0.08.

"He had to hit the car pretty hard to throw it up into that raised yard," Vollrath said. "This could have been a potentially dangerous situation."

Though most DUII-related cases rarely end so dramatically, Medford police say the holidays bring out more intoxicated drivers.

"This is what we in law enforcement refer to as DUII season," said Medford police Deputy Chief Tim George. "We have an increase in traffic from out-of-town visitors, people attending holiday parties and the New Year celebration; a lot of this activity involves alcohol."

It seems fitting that President George Bush earlier this year issued a proclamation naming December National Drunk and Drugged Driving Prevention Month.

The Medford Police Department says it is doing its part by increasing patrols during peak holiday hours in hopes of clearing the streets of drunk drivers.

"Our officers are like hawks out there," George said. "We have made it a priority of this department."

The numbers seem to bear out George's claim.

The agency is projected to make approximately 600 DUII arrests in 2007, up from 535 last year.

"That's going to be a modern-day record for MPD," George added.

By comparison, the Salem Police Department made just 499 DUII arrests last year. Salem is roughly twice the size of Medford.

That doesn't mean there are more drunk drivers on Medford's streets, George said.

"It's all about the type of fishers you have out there," George said. "Places like Salem and Eugene definitely have more DUII drivers, but our people are focusing on making more of those kinds of arrests. Of course our numbers will be high."

Vollrath, who works the weekend night shift, is leading the DUII charge. He recently broke through 100 DUII arrests for the year.

"He's just flat-out getting after it," George said.

As much as he enjoys making DUII busts, Vollrath is quick to remind you that he is much more than a "DUII cop."

He makes those arrests between domestic violence chaos, prowler reports, business burglaries and calls for back-up. Compared to these, DUII busts are cake. Or are they?

"Actually, DUII arrests are very time-consuming," Vollrath said. "There's a lot of paperwork and everything, including the field sobriety test, and what you say before it is scrutinized" if the charge is challenged in court.

Violence is a possibility any time you deal with intoxicated suspects. Vollrath had a man fight him for control of his gun during a DUII stop several years ago when he worked for the Central Point Police Department.

"He was friendly and joking at first," Vollrath said. "Then suddenly he went for my weapon and the fight was on."

Like all officers, Vollrath relies on field sobriety test and a Breathalyzer when charging someone with DUII.

The field sobriety test involves a series of exercises including walking in a straight line, balancing on one foot and a "nystagmus" test.

The nystagmus test involves following a pen with your eyes. The officer looks for jerky movements as the eye focuses on the pen. Alcohol affects the eye's ability to smoothly follow a moving object. The higher the alcohol content in the body, the sooner the jerking starts.

"It's very technical," Vollrath said. "The pen has to be 12 to 15 inches from the eye and you can't move too fast or too slow. Also, you must carefully explain each phase of the test, otherwise the (court) case is weakened."

The field sobriety test has its share of critics. A quick search online reveals hundreds of Web sites citing scientific studies denouncing the validity of both the field sobriety and the nystagmus tests.

Local defense attorney Peter Carini, who specializes in DUII cases, argues that the field sobriety test is rigged so that even a sober person would fail.

"I'd say (to someone stopped on suspicion of DUII) to be nice, keep your mouth shut because you're not talking your way out of it, and don't do any of those silly things by the side of the road that make you look like an idiot," Carini said.

He claims it is impossible to pass a field sobriety test.

"There are only degrees of failure," Carini said. "They keep you in a state of imbalance, with your hands down, meanwhile there are cars whizzing by... the test is a crude predictor of blood alcohol level."

Vollrath said he understands that some people could have trouble with certain phases of the test. He takes that into consideration when deciding whether to charge someone.

"If they miss a step while walking the line, I forgive that," Vollrath said. "I look at the totality of the test. If someone misses a step and shows signs of nystagmus and has alcohol on their breath, I will make the arrest."

Carini said he defends around 200 people a year in DUII cases. Of those, most are second-time offenders.

Most people tagged for their first DUII choose the diversion option, a program that includes classes, a victim's impact panel, a $405 court fee and a $150 evaluation fee.

Those who successfully complete a diversion do not have to live with a DUII on their record and do not have their licenses suspended for a year.

But that's not to say they walk away unscathed, Carini said.

The minimum fine for the first DUII is $1,000; $1,500 for the second offense and $2,000 for the third conviction. The maximum fine is $6,250 for each offense, Carini said.

"But those fees are nothing compared to what's going to happen to your insurance," Carini added.

A third DUII conviction becomes a felony and could cost you a maximum five years in prison and a $125,000 fine.

In the face of these outcomes, Carini wonders why anyone would even consider climbing behind the wheel after drinking.

"The fact of the matter is drinking and driving is stupid," Carini added. "Just don't do it."

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 776-4471, or e-mail

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