ORIGINALLY WRITTEN CYNTHIA MARTENS
The Marion County Sheriff’s Department is preparing for an unusual New Year’s holiday.
“New Year’s Eve this year is falling on a Monday, so you have the entire weekend instead of a single day” for people to celebrate, said Lee Becker, Marion County sheriff.
What does Becker plan to do this year on a holiday that begins on Friday and stretches for three to four days?
“Of course, we’ve anticipated everybody will be traveling a lot more in vehicles rather than flying, so there will probably be a lot of road traffic,” he said.
Becker plans to have three officers out in the evenings on the weekend and Monday. Two additional officers, Becker and the under sheriff will also be on call in the evenings.
“We got our other guys out of the academy in November, so we’ve just actually started having the luxury of having two and three deputies out,” Becker said.
The Marion County law-enforcement dog, a Belgian Malinois named Jag, is scheduled to work over the weekend and be on call on New Year’s Eve.
Jag is trained for detection of illegal drugs and contraband as well as tracking and recovery.
Officers must be prepared to handle a variety of activities during any holiday, Becker said. And they prepare for New Year’s as they do for any event in which a large number of people will be celebrating.
“I wouldn’t say it’s any different than any other weekend when you have an activity of some sort like a game or something like that,” he said.
But driving under the influence of alcohol is a major concern during a holiday like this one. An officer’s decision to charge a driver with DUI is more complicated than obtaining results from a Breathalyzer test, Becker said.
A variety of tests are used to determine if a driver should be charged with a DUI.
“There are several sobriety tests we go through,” Becker said.
“One of those is walking a line, the other is the one-legged stand, and then you also have the nystagmus tests where you take an object and have a person’s eyes track that object.”
The Breathalyzer test is subject to the regulations of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, an organization that sets the standard for the test, Becker said.
In Kansas, it’s against the law to drive a motor vehicle while having a blood or breath alcohol concentration of .08 or above.
“Alcohol concentration means the number of grams of alcohol per 100 milliliters of blood or 210 liters of breath,” Becker said.
“We offer a Breathalyzer test or we can take blood or urine or any combination.”
Kansas drivers with a license must submit to the tests.
“If you have a Kansas driver’s license, you have no choice,” Becker said. “You agree to those tests, and you don’t have any right to an attorney.”
Probable cause required
But officers are not going to administer tests without establishing probable cause.
“Maybe there was alcohol present in the vehicle, you fell over when you got out of your vehicle, or you’re wobbling or you speech is blurred,” he said.
Officers, taking into consideration more than just the results of blood-alcohol level and sobriety tests, must decide if the driver is driving impaired, Becker said.
The legal limit of alcohol consumption varies from person to person and depends on the individual’s metabolism.
“If you’re an alcoholic, you might have an alcohol level of .20, and you won’t be as drunk as someone else with .06,” Becker said.
“If you’re dangerous to yourself or others, and I have reason to believe that, and I can articulate that to a judge or the county attorney, you can be charged if you’re .06 and you’re impaired.”
If a driver refuses to submit to the tests, the case will go to an administrative hearing.
At that level, the state has the authority to suspend driving privileges for one year.
Those drivers convicted with DUI face penalties that vary with the number of DUI offenses committed and can involve community service, fines, imprisonment, driver’s license suspension and a mandatory program for alcohol and drug abuse treatment (see side bar).
The Kansas Legislature passed a new law known as Zero Tolerance, which went into effect in 1977. Under 21 years of age it is illegal to operate a motor vehicle with a breath or blood alcohol content of .02.
Under 21, the penalty for a first offense is driving privileges suspended for 30 days and restricted for 330 days. Penalty for second offense and subsequent offenses is driving privileges suspended for one year.
Any penalties are small compared to paralysis or death caused by an accident involving alcohol, Becker said.
DUI activity is not the only concern for officers over a holiday. Domestic arguments and violence can typically increase during this time.
What happens over the Christmas holidays is money’s always tight, cabin fever sets in and family arguments can escalate, Becker said.
“It should be a festive time with families getting together, but alcohol can elevate some family elements, and we do get domestics going on.”
During the coming extended holiday weekend, officers will be assigned to their routine patrols. But Becker pointed out that bar checks, at the officer’s discretion, are not considered unusual.
“We walk in and walk out, and that’s part of our job anytime of the year,” Becker said.
“As far as sitting (outside) a bar, we should be able to sit there because you wouldn’t think anything if I sat at a grocery store would you?” he said.
The department does have undercover officers, but the effectiveness of this type of operation is tenuous because of the size of Marion County.
“Everybody knows us,” Becker said.
The only truly clandestine operation is using officers from other counties, and this has been done successfully in the past, he said.
Becker was not at liberty to say if undercover officers will be used this New Year’s holiday.
Marion County does not have any program to offer free rides home to individuals who feel they may have consumed too much alcohol to be able to drive safely, Becker said.
“Under our normal operation, it wouldn’t work out for us to pull one person from patrol to do that,” he said.
“Then if you have a person with you, and you get another call, and you’re out in the country-do you drop them off at say 230th and 77” without a coat and any means of getting home?
Over a long holiday weekend like the one fast approaching, one major concern in Marion County law enforcement is the small number of officers covering a large area of potential DUI violations.
Becker quoted the following sobering statistic: “Currently, for every DUI violator arrested there are between 500 and 2000 DUI violations committed.”
“So the chances of a DUI violator being arrested are as low as 1 in 2000.
“DUI violators vastly outnumber police officers. You have three deputies working in a county population of 13,000.”
Under these circumstances, it is invaluable to have officers with heightened awareness of DUI detection and strong motivation to do the best job they can, Becker said.
“Our purpose is to make sure we are trying to make the roads safe for your family and mine. And that’s our goal-to make sure we’re all safe.
“I also hope that everyone will realize the importance of looking out for our neighbors” as they enter this holiday and throughout the year, Becker said.
ORIGINALLY WRITTEN CYNTHIA MARTENS