Oregon State Trooper Dakotah Keys rolled into the outskirts of Lebanon Wednesday evening, just as the sun was setting. It’s technically his day off, but he had a good reason to work that night.
Trooper Keys participated in a saturation patrol along with 13 other officers. The patrol is a high-profile, concentrated effort to stop impaired drivers and make arrests for driving under the influence of intoxicants.
Such patrols involve multiple agencies, and the officers' extra wages and operating costs are paid for with speed and seatbelt enforcement grant money from the Oregon Department of Transportation. OSP Sgt. Nathan House said Salem, Portland and McMinnville agencies also held saturation patrols on the same night.
“At the Albany office, we have been trying to conduct a saturation patrol every one or two months, targeting our problem areas,” he said.
Impaired drivers kill 10,000 people each year nationwide. Of those, 1,233 in 2015 were children. In Oregon, 447 people that year died as a result of impaired driving.
Keys, who studied Social Science on a track scholarship at the University of Oregon, has been a trooper for two years. He says getting impaired drivers off the roadways is a part of his job about which he feels very strongly. Having grown up in Sweet Home, it’s important for him to be able to help his community.
One hour and 23 minutes into the three hour patrol, Keys pulled over two drivers after noticing each were displaying suggestions of erratic driving. Both turned out to be sober drivers who had simply gained Key’s attention with a minor drift out of their lane, or in one case, having left a bar parking lot a little more quickly than normal.
Meanwhile, the radio cross talk revealed other officers making traffic stops up and down Highway 34 and along Highway 20 between Lebanon and Sweet Home. In some instances, red and blue lights lit the trees on both sides of the highway within sight of one another.
But while making traffic stops in such high volume can work well to catch impaired drivers, the officers on patrol have to contend with other calls too. A car in a ditch proved to be a sober person who only misjudged her U-turn. That call, just 15 minutes into Keys’ patrol, took up a good 20 minutes of his time.
While he waited with the driver for the tow truck to arrive, he learned through the radio that a driver with only three tires was sending sparks into the night air as he rolled down I-5. That driver wasn’t impaired either; he turned out to be an oblivious teenager with no idea his tire had blown and he was riding on the rim.
In between stops, Trooper Keys talked about how some nights the impaired drivers just seem to fall into his lap. He talked about taking a woman to jail after arresting her for driving drunk in Albany one early morning at around 1:30. Afterward, he stopped at the Rigoberto’s Restaurant drive-thru, only to notice a driver roll into the parking lot, clearly drunk, and walk inside.
“I went inside and talked to him, and sure enough he was hammered,” said Keys. “So I arrested him, too.”
Back on patrol Wednesday, Keys swung around to follow a Dodge pickup after watching its driver ride the center line for more than three seconds. The driver, a registered sex offender who was required to have a breathalyzer hooked to his ignition, known as an Ignition Interlock Device, appeared intoxicated but managed to “pass” the field sobriety test.
Keys explained that a subject doesn’t necessarily pass the sobriety test, but rather performs in a way that does not meet the criteria for impairment.
“I did see signs of impairment,” he said. “He told me he takes Vicodin for his back.”
The truck the suspect was driving did not have the IID installed, and he had no valid driver’s license, so he was cited for driving suspended and failing to install an IID. Additionally, he was told to wait for a friend to pick him up.
Keys could have waited with him, but that would have cut into the saturation patrol, so he returned to the roadway to look for more offenders. He explained that he could have cited the man for more offenses, but that he believes some goodwill can go a long way.
“I could have, you know, thrown the book at him,” said Keys, “but what I cited him for was enough for now, and also the way I treat him could negatively affect the way he interacts with the next officer that stops him, so I’m looking out for that next officer too.”
As the patrol drew to a close, Keys explained that he'd bet a fellow trooper a Dairy Queen sundae that he would cite an impaired driver first. The other trooper won, and Keys laughed when he considered that he’d be buying the sundaes.
Next, a swerving white pickup caught his eye, and Keys pulled a U-turn and sped up to get behind the truck, which by that time had run a red light on Three Lakes Road. By the time Keys activated his red and blue lights, the truck has pulled into a driveway. Keys approached the driver and returned shortly to run his information.
His initial contact was telling of how the stop was going to go.
“He tried to give me his Subway card,” Keys said, recalling what he got when he asked for the driver’s license and registration. Also, the smell of marijuana in the cab was strong.
Before long, the driver, Jason Levi Gomez, was standing on the curb, and Keys assessed his sobriety.
“So how was Subway?” Keys asked, trying to get the suspect to relax.
“Good,” Gomez replied.
After walking heel to toe, balancing on one foot, and then being asked to estimate 30 seconds, which is a common test for cannabis impairment, Gomez was arrested for DUII and reckless driving.
A search of his cab produced a collection of prescription medications and two glass pipes, one loaded with pot. His family emerged from the house and explained that Gomez has had problems after having had an operation and needs the medications, and likely the marijuana, to mitigate the pain.
“It’s okay with me if he smokes pot,” said Keys. “The problem is that he can’t be driving.”
Gomez was booked into the Linn County Jail, but was later released, and his family came to pick him up.
At the end of the evening, the saturation patrol in Linn County included 11 Troopers and an officer each from the Albany and Lebanon Police departments, and one Linn County Sheriff Deputy. The patrol involved 112 stops, which yielded 25 traffic citations, 98 warnings, an arrest for methamphetamine possession, a criminal citation to a driver who “threw a burning object from a vehicle,” two warrant arrests and two arrests for DUII.
The patrol spanned from Sweet Home to Corvallis, and Keys said there is a marked difference between the two areas. While drivers out toward Sweet Home tend to be driving home from bars more often, Benton County sees more college students and others who rely more on Uber or taxi cabs to get a ride home from a party or a bar.
Keys said he is always amazed how often drivers will decide to risk it and drive home. His advice is to call for a ride whenever there is a question about safety.