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DUI Strike Team bolsters enforcement efforts in Las Vegas

Updated December 17, 2018 - 5:48 pm

The two stop mid-conversation, pointing out to each other the signs they have been trained to notice like it is second nature.

“No headlights,” Nevada Highway Patrol trooper Deborah Huff said, while her partner, Metropolitan Police Department officer Mike Thiele, mentions the driver’s swerving and speeds up to trail the car.

“This is something we do all day, every day,” said Thiele, during a patrol this month with Huff. “This is the only thing my responsibility is, is to look and help with impaired driving.”

The pair are part of the new DUI Strike Team, made up of four Metro officers and three troopers who work Wednesday through Saturday nights, solely arresting suspected impaired drivers. From Oct. 24, the team’s first night patrolling, to early Sunday, more than 184 people had been arrested by the team in the Las Vegas Valley on suspicion of impaired driving, said Andrew Bennett, a spokesman for the state Office of Traffic Safety.

The office formed the multiagency team to reduce traffic fatalities and impaired driving. About 30 to 35 percent of all traffic-related deaths in Nevada involve an impaired driver, Bennett said.

“Having a trooper and a Metro officer riding in the same vehicle shows the united front we have,” he said. “This marks a new era in DUI enforcement.”

In an area filled with casinos, clubs and bars, officers expect more impaired drivers during the winter months, when parties and family get-togethers are common.

“The ‘ber’ months are the deadly months when it comes to impaired driving and people dying on our roads,” Thiele said. “That’s statistically proven throughout the years that our holidays are our deadliest times.”

Huff, who has worked with the Highway Patrol for 13 years, investigated fatal traffic crashes for four years before joining the DUI Strike Team.

“We fully believe every arrest we make is a life saved,” Huff said on a recent Friday night. “Even if it’s that person’s life we’re saving. I can’t count how many fatals we got called out to where it was a single-vehicle crash, and it was just that one driver who died, but he or she was also impaired.”

Because Huff is a drug recognition expert, she and Thiele were called when officers pulled over a suspected impaired driver in the south valley before midnight on Dec. 7. An officer wanted help because it appeared a driver was high, not drunk.

Huff went through the basics: the male driver stood on one leg for 30 seconds, walked in a straight line and turned around, then watched her finger move in circles around his face. She was looking for normal signs of impairment, as well as drug-specific signs, she said.

“The clues in the eyes are the most important,” Huff said earlier during her patrol. “Even a professional drunk can pass a walk-and-turn and one-leg stand, but they can’t control the bouncing in their eyes.”

Police arrested the man on suspicion of impaired driving. He was transported to the Clark County Detention Center, and the officers not on the DUI team were free to continue their patrols.

It was the man’s third impaired-driving arrest, Thiele said, though he wasn’t convicted the second time.

The DUI Strike Team hopes that by continuing the pilot program, more impaired drivers will be convicted and fewer will be able to have their charges reduced.

When the team was formed, law enforcement leaders didn’t expect the team would be making a six or seven arrests a night, Bennett said. Between responding to other calls and taking time to book suspects, other officers don’t have time to make nearly that many arrests, he said.

“I don’t think anybody expected us to do as well as we’re doing,” Huff said.

Las Vegas police made 3,056 DUI arrests in 2016 and 3,240 in 2017, according to Metro’s annual report.

Huff said being certified to recognize signs of impairment for different drugs makes arrests smoother and faster. She knows some narcotics like heroin cause pinpoint pupils, while stimulants such as cocaine and methamphetamine cause pupils to dilate.

Besides illegal drugs, marijuana worries Huff. She said people don’t realize how potent current forms of the drug can be, especially when it is ingested through vape pens.

“It’s not our parents’ or our grandparents’ marijuana; it’s a completely different thing now,” Huff said.

At the end of the night, both officers said that while they’ve been involved with traffic policing before, they believe this assignment makes the largest difference in the valley.

By arresting impaired drivers, Huff can prevent some of the fatal accidents she used to investigate. Thiele, who said he’s always liked traffic policing because it affects everyone, can now help remove dangerous drivers from the valley where he grew up.

“It’s being able to have that hands-on ability to say I’m actually making that difference,” Thiele said. “In a town that never sleeps, it’s OK to drink and it’s OK to party; but, everyone forgets it’s not OK to drink and drive.”

Huff added, “I just wish people would take the time, if not to think for just themselves, think about their loved ones before they get behind the wheel of a car when they’re impaired. Because it’s not just their life that they’re altering; it’s everyone around them.”

Contact Katelyn Newberg at knewberg@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0240. Follow @k_newberg on Twitter.

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