Inside La Mesa's DUI Crusade

By Chris Lavin

La Mesa Today Editor

LA MESA -- When they asked the notorious criminal Willie Sutton why he robbed banks, he famously answered "because that is where the money is.''
Spend an evening with the La Mesa police officer Ryan Rogers and ask him where all his driving under the influence collars come from and he can drive around town pointing to one tavern after another.
"That place gave me four last year,'' Rogers said, pointing to a University Avenue hole-in-the-wall. Pointing to another bar he said "That place gave me three, but none this year so far.''

Bars, as Sutton might have said, are where the alcohol is.

What may be most surprising is that this officer can remember individual DUI arrests at all. Last year, Rogers took 130 drunk drivers off La Mesa streets and put the fear-of-god into another 400 or more who had the pleasure of one of his roadside sobriety tests.
Rogers' 130 total broke the department record and earned him, for the first time in La Mesa history, the annual Distinguished Service Award For Local Law Enforcement from San Diego County Mothers Against Drunk Driver's.

"It's not that I enjoy arresting people,'' Rogers said. "But at the end of the year when we see a 46 percent reduction in alcohol-related injury accidents, well, we just say YEAAAAAAH!''

With little public fanfare, Rogers has been at the heart of the La Mesa Police Department's campaign to reduce alcohol-related deaths and injuries through strict enforcement. In addition to Rogers' 130 DUI arrests, other officers chipped in to build an annual total of 255.

Spend a night riding shotgun with Rogers and you quickly learn how the department has been approaching this campaign.

Rogers arrives early hoping to clean up the voluminous paperwork that starts each DUI prosecution. Tucked away in a corner of the police station he chronicles the details of each arrest so he can refresh his memory when he is called to court. He carries a stack of subpoenas for court appearances that often are part of the DUI process.

In the early evening, the night shift officers gather for lineup and get caught up on police actions of the day and special announcements. Rogers handles the traffic cop beat, but is often asked to back up other officers on other breaking assignments so he needs to be aware of everything from the quirks of the homeless population to special drug and alcohol enforcement efforts being made in La Mesa neighborhoods.

By 7 p.m. or so, Rogers mounts up in a police cruiser equipped with the latest radar gear as well as the blood alcohol test kits that are at the heart of his evening.

As he heads out into the night, he instantly starts scanning passing cars, checking the two-way radar that can measure speeders coming at him and those coming up from behind. 

"I usually spend the first three hours or so just doing traffic checks, accident investigation,'' he says. "After ten, I shift into DUI mode.''

True to his routine he quickly stops a driver without a license plate, letting him go when he produces a temporary tag. He watches as a motorist races through a red light on University and follows him as he continues speeding across the trolley tracks and Spring Street. He pulls him over near Palm and the driver pleads for understanding. "I'm late for a date and I have to get back to Men's Wearhouse because I don't know how to do this bow tie!''

"You hear them all,'' Rogers says laughing.

Cruising down University a few minutes later Rogers sees a car with no brake lights racing through town. He pulls the driver over and immediately smells alcohol on his breath.

What follows for the next few minutes is a routine Rogers has acted out literally thousands of times since he joined the department in 2008. The driver denies drinking and Rogers puts him first through an eye test and then asks him to stand on one foot and count to 30. Next, the man must count back from 75.

In this case, he passes these tests and is sent on his way with a warning.

"I know he was drinking and he lied to me,'' Rogers says. "But he wasn't drinking too much.''

That, in fact, is the way most his collars happen. He doesn't sit outside bars waiting to see drunks stagger out to their cars.

"That wouldn't be fair to the merchant,'' Rogers said. Instead, he patrols areas like La Mesa Village where he knows, after a certain hour, there is almost no reason except the bars to be in that area. Then he looks for any legal reason to pull a car over and check the eyes and breath. Brake lights, license plate light, registration sticker, phone in their hand -- whatever legal reason he can make a stop is used.

"We don't wait to see poor driving,'' he said. "If we have to wait for that, we'll be having more accidents. Our goal is to get them before they drive poorly.''

Just before 9 p.m. a radio call goes out about a minor fender bender at Lowell and University, just a few blocks away. No injuries and the motorists are exchanging paperwork, the dispatcher said. Perhaps no reason for an officer at all, but Rogers goes anyway.

Within seconds of arriving on the scene he is sniffing out a problem. The driver who drove into the back of another vehicle is standing apart from the other motorist and not responding to simple questions.

A backup officer arrives and within minutes Rogers is conducting another field sobriety test on a middle age woman who is becoming increasingly belligerent. She can't stand on one leg. She counts backward haltingly. Her eyes can't follow Rogers' light. She admits to having had a couple wines, but says she started drinking at 2 p.m.

"Will you take a breathalyzer?'' Rogers offers.

She refuses.

He takes out his handcuffs, snaps them on her wrists and reads the woman her rights. He leads her to the squad car, puts her in the back seat and as he heads to the station to administer a blood test, the radio in his squad car starts playing "Another One Bites The Dust!'' Even the drunk woman in 'cuffs noted the irony.

In the harsh light and decidedly unadorned cement environs of the La Mesa PD holding cell, the reality of this episode begins to sink in. The woman is shackled to a wall, her wrists hurt and she watches as a nurse drains evidence from her veins. She begins crying and screams in shock when Rogers begins taking her through the routine that will begin with a night in jail.

"I hate it when he says 'jail,' she screams. "I have never been in jail.''

She is instructed to write key phone numbers in pen on her arm because her cell phone battery probably won't last the night.

Re-handcuffed she is loaded back into the car, her possessions bagged, tagged and sealed in plastic as she heads down the 125 to the women's jail at Las Colinas in Santee. Three times she asks for the radio station to be changed. Three times Rogers complies.

Las Colinas doesn't have high walls, but the razor wire gets your attention. This is a prison. After a 25-minute wait for "night count,'' she is welcomed into the holding cells for her first night ever in jail. 

"She can get bailed out in the morning,'' Rogers said. "But if she can't get a bail bond, she can wait a couple  of days for a judge.''

It is now almost 11 o'clock. Rogers has been tied up for two hours booking this first DUI of the night, but he is still thinking about the woman she hit.

"It isn't fair for her,'' he said. "Her car is damaged. She's waiting through an investigation and she'll have to get her car fixed and deal with insurance companies.''

And in some ways, that is the daunting nature of the extent of the DUI problem in America today. Rogers once tested, arrested and booked four drivers in one night. The arrests will cost the drivers thousands of dollars for legal fees, raise their insurance rates and in some cases will cost them their jobs. But, Rogers said, he and his fellow officers can't say they find fewer drunks behind the wheel year after year. They are simply catching more before they manage to get into accidents.

La Mesa Police Chief Ed Aceves praises Rogers both for his vigilance and for the constructive spirit with which he patrols the streets. "He's a good guy and he's working his tail off for us all,'' he said. "We're glad to have him. But the truth is the supply of drunk drivers doesn't seem to diminish.''

As Rogers left Las Colinas, it was just March 4 and he was already ahead of his record pace.

"That was number 40,'' he said. "At this rate, I'll blow last year's record away.''

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Tags: Crime, DUI, Distinguished Service Award, Ed Aceves, La Mesa, La Mesa Police, La Mesa Police Chief, La Mesa Police Department, La Mesa Today, La Mesa news, More…La Mesa newspaper, Las Colinas, Lowell, Men's Wearhouse, Mother's Against Drunk Driving, Ryan Rogers, Santee, University

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Comment by Jimmy Sanders on April 8, 2014 at 9:50am

Obviously her employment and/or companionship did not rise to the level of a free ride home instead of jail!

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