East Valley DUI Task Force Command Center

Part of the East Valley DUI Task Force Command Center on Dec. 29 were Mesa Police Officer George Chwe and Sgt. Matt Harris. The command center processed arrests made in Gilbert and other cities in the region.

Responsible drivers are following all the steps recommended by Gilbert police to avoid collisions and arrests, but irresponsible drivers appear more impaired than ever by a potent mix of alcohol and drugs.

Statistics released by the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety show drivers arrested statewide in the annual holiday season crackdown have an average blood alcohol content of more than .146 percent.

That blood-alcohol level is just short of the .15 percent limit defining extreme driving under the influence.

An extreme DUI carries a mandatory 30 days in jail, which can be suspended if an ignition interlock is installed in a vehicle for a year. The minimum fine is $2,500, plus other court costs.

This average BAC level exceeded .15 in 2015, but had dipped to .142 in 2017 and .148 percent in 2018. 

“It’s been going on for some time now,’’ said Alberto Gutier, director of the state Highway Safety Office. “We are very concerned about that average. I think it’s very dangerous.’’

An equally troubling trend has emerged in recent years with some drivers.

They’re compounding their impairment – posing an even greater risk to public safety – by combining alcohol with street drugs.

Police estimate 30-40 percent of DUI arrests involve a combination of alcohol and drugs they report have an exponential impact on impairment, Gutier said.

Gutier said Mesa police remain a leader in Arizona DUI enforcement, making more arrests a year ago than Phoenix police, thanks in large to a number of traffic officers who are trained as drug recognition experts.

In some cases, police are arresting drivers with a BAC of .30 percent or more in the East Valley.

Or they are seeing instances like the one in west Mesa earlier this year, when a driver passed out after smoking two Fentanyl pills, crossed into on-rushing traffic on the wrong side of the road and eventually plowed into a house.

Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid often laced with heroin. It has been implicated as a major contributing factor in drug overdoses.

Sgt. Matt Harris, a Mesa police traffic unit supervisor, said it was fortunate no one other than the driver – who sustained two broken legs – was injured in the Fentanyl-related collision.

“We have a lot where they are right at the legal limit (for alcohol, .08 percent), and then they do drugs on top of that,’’ Harris said. “These people we are coming in contact with are more impaired because of poly-drug use.’’

It could be a potent mix of alcohol and just about any street drug, including marijuana, methamphetamine, heroin or cocaine, he said.

“They are smashed and they can’t do the field sobriety test,’’ Harris said. “We will see signs and symptoms something else is on-board.’’

During one recent Saturday night during the crackdown, which stretches annually between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve, a squad of 12 Mesa motor officers made more than 20 DUI arrests, he said.

The East Valley Task Force covers an area east of Central Avenue and includes Mesa, Chandler, Gilbert, Tempe and Scottsdale. Police stage at different locations in different cities on rotating nights.

 Harris and Officer George Chwe, a drug recognition expert, were staged with other motorcycle cops on Dec. 29 at Sloan Park, the Cactus League baseball stadium at Rio Salado Parkway and Dobson Road.

“The only limitation (on making DUI arrests) is having enough trained people to look for them,’’ Harris said. “We will find them all night long.’’

A year ago, the East Valley Task Force made 1,249 DUI arrests, Harris said, and he expects a similar amount for the 2019-20 campaign.  

Statewide, police made 2,161 DUI arrests between Thanksgiving and New Year's Eve. The total for the year was 26,500.

Chwe said about 60-70 percent of Mesa police DUI arrests involve impairment by drugs, while agencies in other parts of the state report a predominance of alcohol arrests.

“It’s because there are not enough officers to recognize it,’’ Chwe said, adding the problem “has evolved, especially with medical marijuana’’ and could grow if recreational marijuana use eventually is allowed in Arizona.

In 2020, Chwe is scheduled to take on a new role, working with Gutier’s office to expand drug recognition training throughout the state.

During the last couple of years, Mesa police responded to new trends not only with drug recognition officers, but also with a new tool – called a Dragen device, it analyzes saliva samples to identify suspected use of seven different categories of drugs. 

Chwe demonstrated the device with a real-life example as he and other officers investigated whether a DUI suspect was under the influence of drugs.

The suspect provided both a conventional blood sample and also a saliva sample, which was placed inside the machine. About 10 minutes later, the Dragen confirmed what police suspected, the suspect was under the influence of methamphetamine.

Although the procedure is too new to be admissible in court, the results act as a confirmation police are reading the other signs of impairment properly and can be used by the Mesa Prosecutor’s Office to file appropriate charges, Chwe said.

Chwe said one potential explanation for the higher BAC level recorded in DUI arrests is drivers who are not heavy drinkers are still capable of making a good decision by calling Uber or Lyft.

He said the drivers arrested on extreme DUI charges are different from those who record borderline alcohol level – these such cases are in decline.

“You get to the point where there is no decision-making’’ with such high BAC levels, Chwe said. “It’s not the first time they’re getting impaired. It’s the first time they are getting caught.’’

Harris cited the case of a petite woman arrested by one of his officers as an example of heavy alcohol use impairing judgment, as well as driving. 

The suspect recorded a .22 blood alcohol reading, nearly three times the legal limit. She told officers she had been drinking at home and went out to get something to eat, rather than having a meal delivered.

“It’s terrifying these people are on the road with us,’’ Harris said.