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DWI enforcement varies dramatically because of time and headaches

DWI enforcement varies dramatically because of time and headaches

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It's 1:24 a.m. on a Friday morning. A Ford Focus weaves onto an Interstate 255 on-ramp. It nearly hits a bridge wall.

St. Louis County Police Officer Fareid Yaakub flashes the lights on his cruiser, pulls behind the Focus and begins a 3 1/2-hour odyssey of a DWI arrest.

The scene last month in south St. Louis County could easily be the footage for those public service ads that insist: You drink. You drive. You lose.

But a Post-Dispatch review of data and interviews with dozens of officers across the region found that what happened that night is far from routine.

Most officers rarely make a DWI stop. Very few make them regularly. Enforcement can vary dramatically from department to department and squad car to squad car.

Some officers complain they're too busy. Or the arrests are too complicated. Or the hassle too enormous.

They fear the kind of night Yaakub is about to have.

Unusual gig

Yaakub begins his shift about 10:30 p.m. looking for speeders, but within an hour or two patrols the interstates and major streets looking for weavers.

His mission is simple: Take at least one drunken driver off the road.

He works a permanent third shift, the prime time for drunks.

He drives a special black Dodge Charger. Speeders can't outrun him.

The car isn't the only thing unusual about his gig.

Unlike Yaakub, most officers enforce DWI on the go, between 911 calls and keeping watch for burglars or vandals.

Busier departments can struggle to keep up with 911 calls. Even if they find a drunken driver, one chief said, they may just write traffic tickets, tow the car and get the driver a ride home.

A DWI arrest would take too long.

Yaakub considers himself lucky: He's not a slave to dispatch. His job is to arrest drunken drivers. He'll even take over DWI arrests so colleagues can get back on patrol.

Telltale signs

Three hours into his shift, Yaakub has yet to come across any drunken drivers in about a half-dozen stops.

Then he spots the Focus and what he considers telltale signs of a drunk:

The Focus crosses three lanes of traffic to make a left turn to an I-255 on-ramp. It veers onto the shoulder, meandering back and forth on the ramp and nearly clips a wall.

Yaakub begins his first and only DWI arrest of the night. It will consume most of his morning.

He walks up to the car and chats up the driver. He smells alcohol. Hears slurred speech. Sees glassy eyes.

The driver, Nathan Nolan, 29, says he has come to town from Michigan to do some contracting work and meet a girlfriend. They had eaten dinner at the Pasta House and stopped at a bar near the South County mall. They were on Lindbergh, headed back to a motel by the airport, when Yaakub pulled up behind them.

Nolan tries field sobriety tests, to see how well he walks, talks, stands and gazes. Yaakub has taken hours of training to learn how to test suspected drunken drivers and fill out paperwork.

Nolan fails all the tests. He then fails a portable breath test. The handcuffs come on.

It seems like a textbook DWI arrest - but even textbook arrests can have unforeseen hassles.

Half of 1 percent

Officers from across the region say they struggle with everything that goes into a DWI arrest.

Proper paperwork is paramount. Officers expect defense attorneys to look for holes in even the best-written reports.

That's if a case goes to trial. Many are plea-bargained to keep DWIs off driving records.

Then there are the things that come out of a drunk: Tears, curses, urine and vomit.

For sure, many officers still make DWI arrests. Area officers average nearly 30 a day.

But a handful of officers privately admit that either they or a peer have looked the other way when faced with arresting a drunken driver. It's impossible to quantify how many. But a Post-Dispatch analysis of Missouri records shows how rare it is for most officers to make DWI arrests.

Of the 19,000 licensed police officers in Missouri, only about 5 percent averaged at least one DWI arrest a month in 2008.

Rarer still are those who average one DWI a week: Just half of 1 percent.

Yaakub is among the rare breed. And that means a greater share of hassles.

'Oh, no!'

This night, Yaakub becomes more than just a cop making an arrest. He is a baby sitter - not just for Nolan but for Nolan's girlfriend, who's too drunk to drive.

The car is a traffic hazard, so Yaakub calls for a tow truck. And the girlfriend doesn't know anybody in St. Louis, so Yaakub calls a cab to give her a ride back to her hotel.

He sits in his car. And waits. And waits.

Odds are that one in 45 cars that passes at this hour is driven by someone who's had too much to drink. But Yaakub is powerless until he can finish up this case.

Seventy-nine minutes after the stop, a tow truck arrives to hook up the Focus. Yaakub calls the cab company and learns the cabdriver is lost, so he agrees to meet the cab at a nearby gas station.

Yaakub fires up the Charger, with Nolan buckled in the front passenger seat and his girlfriend squeezing in the backseat. A few minutes from the gas station, Yaakub hears the girlfriend utter two words that signal a whole new task for the night.

"Oh, no!"

Nolan has turned his head and vomited all over the right side of the interior. The mist reaches his girlfriend in the back seat.

Some officers don't care much about their patrol cars. Yaakub isn't one of them. He washes it at the beginning of nearly every shift. He keeps it free of soda cups and fast-food bags.

He quickly pulls over to the shoulder of I-255, races to the trunk, grabs a yellow tarp and wraps it around Nolan.

Now, just for a moment, the normally calm and collected Yaakub vents his frustration at Nolan: "Your Pasta House is all over the side of my car!"

Nolan offers a slurred apology. The trip resumes. In five minutes, the three arrive at the gas station. The cab ferries the girlfriend away. Yaakub explains his plight to the gas station attendant, who offers some multipurpose cleaner and paper towels.

Nolan remains buckled in the front, and Yaakub makes the half-hour journey to the jail in Clayton. There, for about an hour, he does the paperwork to book Nolan.

Nolan gets checked out by the nurse. He refuses to blow into the machine that documents blood-alcohol level. He's taken away.

In between filling out forms, Yaakub tells other officers of his night so far, and why he still has no regrets he took Nolan off the road.

"Another five minutes," Yaakub speculates, "this guy would have killed somebody."

Arrestee gone, Smell statys

By 4:53 a.m., Nolan is safely deposited in jail. He won't get out for 3½ hours. (The case is pending. Nolan could not be reached for comment.)

Yaakub heads to another carwash. A quick run-through gets off most of Nolan's dinner. But some still remains in the rubber seals framing the side window, so Yaakub pulls out a pocket knife to scrape out what's left.

He sighs.

"Man, it had to get in these crevices."

Not every night is like this. Sometimes drunken drivers are easy to spot and relatively easy to book into jail. Others can be combative, or weepy, or just about any emotion magnified by liquor. But most keep their dinners to themselves.

When Yaakub pulls out, the smell of rancid pasta sauce, noodles, salad and beer still waft from the car. But he has done the best he can for now.

As the sun slowly rises, he won't get any more time to patrol for drunken drivers.

The rest of his shift is consumed by a call about a drunken woman wandering the road. Yaakub ends his shift a half-hour late, after the woman's mother arrives to take her home.

Back at his home, Yaakub takes off his uniform.

He hoses the Charger down one more time. He scrubs carpet cleaner into the seats and seat belts. He wipes down the rubber mats and door molding.

By 10 a.m., it's clean again - the smell is gone.

It's ready to embark 12 hours later for another night on the prowl.

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