It's a crime that occurs almost every day in Routt County. Someone has too much to drink, gets behind the wheel of a vehicle and is arrested for drunken driving.
So far 118 days have passed in 2001. Since Jan. 1, a total of 359 people have been booked into the Routt County Jail for various alleged crimes.
Of that number, 151 people have been arrested for suspicion of drunken driving.
"It amazes me the number is so high because of all the education out there and the free bus and taxi available in Steamboat Springs," said Routt County Sheriff John Warner. "It seems ridiculous to me that someone would ruin their lives or their careers for driving drunk."
Local law enforcement officials and prosecutors believe the driving public must become more aware that drinking and driving is something that is not going to be tolerated.
Officials also want the public to realize drunken driving can have serious consequences including death and can prove to be costly.
"Our roads are only as safe as the people who drive on them," Assistant District Attorney Kerry St. James said. "This is a community problem."
Officials also believe the public is unaware in how much of a drain a single drunken driving arrest is on local law enforcement agencies, prosecutors and probation officials.
On the streets
For the past six years, Colorado State Trooper Brett Hilling has been patrolling highways around Steamboat Springs. During those years, he has arrested hundreds of people for drunken driving.
There have even been times where he has had "triple" arrests in a shift.
"It is not unusual," Hilling said of arresting three separate people for drunken driving. "I have done it several times.
"Steamboat Springs is a party town. I don't think the number of arrests has decreased since I have been here. This is a problem nationwide and this is a problem locally."
Of the drunken driving cases so far, the Colorado State Patrol has investigated the only fatality this year.
On the evening of April 16, an intoxicated Sherry Larine Silver, 46, of Craig died after her red truck went off the side of the road and crashed into a tree six miles west of Hayden on U.S. 40. A toxicology test, which tests for alcohol and drugs, shows Silver had a blood-alcohol level of 0.25, which is more than twice the legal limit.
Silver was traveling westbound in her 1986 Ford F-150 truck when she drove off the right side of the road, hit a gate post, then a street lamp and then a large tree at about milepost 101.
Accidents like this is why law enforcement agencies in Routt County are trying to do everything they can to get drunken drivers off the road.
"DUI enforcement is our most important job," Hilling said. "That is our No. 1 priority is to get drunken drivers off the road."
However, arresting drunken drivers can be a long process for officers out in the field.
Steamboat Springs Assistant Police Chief Art Fiebing estimates his officers are pulled off the road for numerous hours to arrest a drunken driver.
"It is a lot of work," said Fiebing, whose department made 256 drunken driving arrests in 2000.
During a typical drunken driving stop, two officers are tied up at the scene because a backup officer is called for safety, Fiebing said.
Once a person is arrested, the arresting officer then transports the driver to the Routt County Jail, where the driver is required to by law to submit to a blood or breath test.
The person is then booked into the county jail if they have a blood-alcohol content of 0.05 or higher.
"By the time an officer makes the arrest and writes the report, it takes about four hours for an officer to handle the whole case," Fiebing said. "Some people just don't get it. Why don't people learn? Alcohol is a problem in our society and this is an example of it.
"We are not against people going out and having a good time. We just don't want them to drive. It is that simple."
The hundreds of people booked into the Routt County Jail also is a strain on Warner's staff.
"People arrested for DUIs are not the most cooperative prisoners," Warner said. "We try to release them if a sober person can come get them. If not, they stay the night in jail."
Warner's staff also has to pay extra attention to prisoners arrested for drunken driving.
"We have to monitor them for health problems," he said. "It is a drain and very frustrating. I believe we have done our part with public education and with providing free transportation. People just can't seem to make good decisions."
The prosecution of drunken drivers in Routt County falls in the shoulders of Deputy District Attorney Elizabeth Wittemyer.
Wittemyer, who has been handling all misdemeanor cases in Routt County for the past year, spends a majority of her time prosecuting drunken drivers.
"About half of my caseload is dealing with DUIs," Wittemyer said. "It is probably pretty comparable to other jurisdictions."
Wittemyer, who graduated from the University of Colorado School of Law in 1994, did not know how serious a drunken driving arrest could be until she reached law school.
During her education to become an attorney, Wittemyer volunteered as a legal aide defending people who were arrested for drunken driving.
"I saw it from the client's perspective and realized it really is not worth it," she said. "I am not here to say these people are bad. Good people do make bad choices. By prosecuting these people, we are doing our job. We want people to be responsible and stop drinking and driving."
During her experience as a prosecutor, Wittemyer's experience with people who are arrested for the charge is that they don't realize how serious drunken driving can be.
"A majority of people come in and are not upset they made a bad choice or put themself or others at risk," she said. "They are upset they got caught. I don't think people realize what could happen to them driving drunk. They could kill themself or someone else."
In her prosecution of people arrested for drunken driving, Wittemyer will be tougher on people who refuse to submit to a blood or breath test.
"We tend to treat people more harshly who do not take a test," she said. "I believe it is unfair to the people who do cooperate and do take a test. A person agrees to take a test when they get a Colorado license."
Prosecutors are also tougher on repeat offenders.
If a person is arrested for drunken driving more than once, "they have a serious problem and are a threat to the community," she said. "We hope that a person learns a lesson their first time through."
A person who is convicted of more than one drunken driving offense can expect at least 20 days in the Routt County Jail.
Wittemyer also believes the public does not realize how expensive a drunken driving arrest can be.
The usual fine for a person convicted for drunken driving ranges between $500 and $700.
The cost for a person can get more expensive if they hire a lawyer or they lose their job because their license has been revoked.
A person convicted of the offense can also expect higher insurance costs when they are eligible to reinstate their license, she said.
"The consequences are so high. It's not worth it, and a conviction never looks good on a person's record," she said.
Wittemyer and St. James are hopeful the state will get even tougher on drunken drivers. They hope the State Legislature will follow the federal mandate to lower Colorado's blood-alcohol threshold from 0.10 to 0.08.
If lawmakers fail to lower the threshold, the state will lose federal funding for state highways.
Although more than 100 people have been arrested for drunken driving in Routt County this year, St. James and Wittemyer believe there are a lot of people who don't get caught.
"I always wonder how many people are out there that we don't get," St. James said.
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