Red and blue lights flashed as Nila Gatson pulled off the side of the road on a chilly night last November. She rolled down her window as the police officer approached.
Gatson felt fine, despite the alcohol she had with a friend while pre-gaming for a Broomfield G-Eazy concert. Her friend drank too much and passed out in her car, so instead of going into the concert, Gatson stayed with her and took a nap.
When she woke up, Gatson decided to head back up to Fort Collins, where she lives. She remembered turning out of a parking lot near the First Bank Center, but after that, there is a gap in her memory.
“I remember coming back into consciousness, of seeing the police lights behind me,” Gatson said. “I was just like, ‘Oh my god, no.’”
The officer smelled alcohol in the car and asked Gatson to step outside. Shivering, she performed a number of roadside maneuvers to test her stability and response. She recited the alphabet from A to O.
She admitted she had been drinking, and she said the officer smelled alcohol on her breath. The officer handcuffed Gatson and took her friend to the hospital.
At the station, she did a breathalyzer test and blew 0.136 percent — almost three times the legal limit for a driving while ability impaired charge, which starts at 0.05 percent in Colorado. Gatson was charged with driving under the influence for having blood alcohol content over 0.08 percent.
“They put me in the cell while they were doing all my paperwork, and I was sitting there, and that’s when I finally realized, ‘Oh, wait, I don’t remember where I got pulled over,’” Gatson said. “Like, I don’t remember driving,’”
DUIs in Fort Collins
Gatson is one of more than 26,000 people each year who are arrested and charged with DUIs in Colorado, according to the state’s Department of Transportation. According to a Collegian analysis of charge data, between March 2014 and March 2015, the Fort Collins Police Department and the Colorado State University Police Department together recorded 565 arrests for DWAI or DUI, including both alcohol and drug impairment.
Both police departments work together with training and enforcement to curb what CSUPD Patrol Officer Kent Keller calls a “DUI epidemic” in the city. He serves as CSUPD’s representative on a traffic safety task force for Larimer County, which meets monthly to discuss a variety of issues, including DUIs.
“We all have one goal with DUI enforcement,” Keller wrote in an email to the Collegian. “That is to get everyone home safely without injuring or killing themselves or someone else.”
Within Colorado, over 150 people are killed in alcohol-related traffic crashes each year, according to the Colorado Department of Transportation. That number represents more than one-third of motor vehicle fatalities in the state.
Officer Ken Koski is FCPD’s DUI officer, a position that assists other officers in handling DUI cases. He is an instructor for field sobriety test training and also teaches officers how to run the station’s breath alcohol testing device, the Intoxilizer 9000.
Much of Koski’s work involves taking over after a FCPD patrol officer has a person in custody for a DUI. He said one of his goals is “to find DUIs within the city of Fort Collins.”
“I believe it’s a big problem, and that’s kind of why I took the position that I did, because I think we can make a difference and kind of make it a little better safety for all the drivers out there,” Koski said.
Koski’s shift — Wednesday through Saturday from 6 p.m. to 4 a.m. — mirrors the trend in Fort Collins of busier Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. In the past year, from March 2014 to March 2015, FCPD had 110 DUI arrests on Saturdays, followed by 80 on Sundays and 78 on Fridays. The three days combined represent about 65 percent of all DUI arrests from FCPD.
CSUPD showed a similar trend, with about 57 percent of DUIs occurring on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
“I believe there’s definitely a heightened problem in the weekends, just because that’s when people want to go out and have some drinks or have their college party,” Koski said.
The police departments plan shifts and staff patrols around busier days and times. Bars close at 2 a.m., so Koski was not surprised that most DUIs occur between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m. Approximately 62.5 percent of FCPD and CSUPD DUI arrests combined occurred between these times.
Patrolling the city
CSUPD and FCPD work together throughout the city on DUI enforcement, although much of CSUPD’s enforcement in the past year has been clustered around campus, with Prospect Road to the south, Mulberry Street to the north, College Avenue to the east and extending along West Elizabeth Street. Approximately 21 percent of the 565 incidents from both forces logged an address or intersection on College Avenue.
Both Keller and Koski said the student population is a factor in the number of DUI arrests in the city, citing weekend parties and the bar scene in Old Town as potential precursors to DUIs. However, Keller also said that Fort Collins, “a very young city during the summer,” still sees an active downtown scene when students are gone, and explained that he tends to see an older group of arrestees during that time.
“Unfortunately, this happens,” Koski said. “It happens every weekend. I’m busy — I know we’re always busy with DUIs and DUI-related crashes, and just trying to get the message out there is just the hardest thing to the younger populations — that this is completely preventable.”
Both FCPD and CSUPD’s procedure for DWAIs and DUIs is similar to what Gatson experienced in Jefferson County. Koski and Keller said that after an officer sees a violation, whether it is a broken taillight or weaving between the lines on the road, he or she pulls the driver over. From there, everything is standard — license, insurance and registration. The officers ask questions to determine if the driver is impaired and pays attention to other indicators such as slurred speech, alcoholic odors or bloodshot eyes.
The officer may ask the driver to perform a series of voluntary roadside maneuvers like those Gatson performed. Fort Collins police officers are taught seven techniques, including three recommended by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration — walking and turning, standing on one leg and having the officer check a driver’s eyes to see if they jerk when looking towards the side.
FCPD officers generally rely on observations, rather than a roadside breath test, to decide whether to arrest a driver. Unlike the Intoxilizer 9000 back at the station, the portable breath tests are not certified.
“We don’t teach that, just because we believe in what the officers’ observations are, and not just deciding on a number that’s possibly high or low based on the calibration of that little machine,” Koski said.
If Koski is at the scene, he will take over and explain Colorado’s Express Consent Law, which requires drivers to consent to either a breath or blood test if an officer believes that person is driving while impaired. The driver can choose either test, and Koski says it is about “50/50” on which test drivers prefer.
If they do not consent to a test, in Larimer County, the driver automatically loses the license for a year, must attend eight months of alcohol education classes and must have an interlock device in the car for two years, according to Koski.
Koski takes drivers who prefer a blood test, or who may be under the influence of drugs, to Poudre Valley Hospital. Those who choose the breath route head to the station.
From there, Koski books the drivers into jail, and the court and Department of Revenue processes take over.
Koski said resources — such as taxis, Transfort’s late-night buses that run from 10:30 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. Friday and Saturday or CSU’s RamRide which operates Thursday through Saturday nights during the school year — are far preferable to getting behind the wheel of a “4,000-pound bullet.”
The effects of a DUI
Since her arrest, Gatson has gotten her paperwork transferred to Larimer County so she does not have to rely on friends to drive her to Jefferson County. She works in Fort Collins, trying to save enough money to take classes at Front Range Community College and eventually transfer to CSU.
But it is a long road ahead — she calculated that after lawyer fees, alcohol education classes and probation, her DUI will cost her over $5,000. She will be on probation for two years, a sentence that can vary depending on the situation.
“When it happened, I was just really bitter about the situation — just cursing at the government and saying, ‘they suck’ and (were) out to get me,” Gatson said. “But then, ultimately, I could have died. She could have died. We could have both gotten seriously injured. I could have totaled my car. I could have hit another driver. Even so, it honestly is a blessing, even though it’s costing me a lot of money and it’s taking a lot of my time.”
Gatson said she has taken an even harder line when it comes to drinking and driving. She said she had a number of friends who had DUIs before she did, but it was not until she got one that she realized its weight.
“After this situation, it’s just, no more,” Gatson said. “If you’re driving and you’re drinking, it’s absolutely not OK. You’re gonna end up hurting someone, and you’re gonna end up screwing yourself over. It’s just — none of it’s worth it. Even if you don’t get caught, there (are) so many risks that you’re putting out there.”
Collegian Executive Editor Kate Winkle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @KateEWinkle.