(This story was originally published on November 26, 2013)
They cut wires and bypassed sophisticated safeguards clandestinely for almost a year so that convicted drunken drivers could beat the system.
At the center of this scheme? A device that may be the single most effective tool available in the battle against drunken driving: the ignition interlock.
“We can’t stop people from drinking, but we can stop them from drinking and driving,” George Lesini, vice president of an interlock manufacturer, told KRQE News 13. “There’s a very big investigation going on with this right now. I’m sure there’s going to be some criminal charges.”
Anyone convicted of DWI must have an interlock on their vehicle for at least a year. Get a fourth DWI and you’ll have one for life.
Today there are more than 11,000 New Mexicans on the road with court-ordered ignition interlocks.
“You blow into the interlock; it measures your breath for alcohol content,” Lesini explained. “If it’s above 0.025, you cannot start the vehicle.”
To insure security and safety, an interlock must be installed by a licensed dealer.
For example, Budget Interlock installed interlocks here in Albuquerque. The firm connected hundreds of court-ordered devices on vehicles driven by drunken drivers.
But there was something wrong with those installs. Something sinister. Something underhanded. Something illegal.
“Car is bypassed where you don’t even have to blow into the interlock to start it,” said an investigator as he reviewed video of one of the rigged devices. “You can see the little bypass right here, the jumper. No interlock in here; not plugged in. Key in the ignition, there ya go. It starts.”
You see, select customers got an unadvertised, secret deal. In more than a dozen cases, Budget cut and sliced wires. Rigged interlocks allowed DWI offenders to beat the system by driving with devices that had been covertly disabled.
“See the yellow bypass right here,” the investigator continued. “Not on the starter. Interlock not plugged in. Vehicle is running.”
In case after case, Budget circumvented the interlock’s security system to render the device inoperative. The scam was uncovered by interlock manufacturer ADS, Alcohol Detection Systems Inc.
“We found a minimum of 12–I think it’s between 12 and 17, somewhere in there–of units that had been bypassed where people could continue to drive whether they were impaired or not, whether they even gave a sample or not,” Lesini said.
ADS documented the deceptive installs and turned the evidence over to the New Mexico Department of Transportation.
“These vehicles had been tampered with for a number of months,” said Transportation Secretary Tom Church. “They were essentially disabled in violation of the intent and the law.
“This is a criminal offense, Larry. We’ve never seen anything of this magnitude.”
ADS has more than 100,000 ignition interlocks in operation today nationwide but has never seen a case like this.
“We’ve had a case where an individual tampered with their own unit, and we caught them, but never had a case where a dealer was doing this and on this scale,” Lesini said.
Budget’s installer admits rigging wiring to bypass the interlock but said he didn’t believe he’d done anything wrong. In exchange for an on-camera interview KRQE News 13 agreed to obscure his identity.
He said 12 devices were temporarily disabled so the vehicles could be serviced by mechanics and added there was no criminal intent.
But how did the installer know how to bypass the interlock?
“ADS, Alcohol Detection Systems’ technical people sent us an email and told us how to do it,” the installer said.
While the installer repeated his assertion the manufacturer provided the information, ADS said that is not something it would do.
“It’s not true,” Lesini said. “We don’t bypass units. If the car is going to be worked on or something, it’s disconnected while the car is worked on and then reconnected, reset and then recalibrated.”
NMDOT’s Church added, “There is no legitimate reason to disable an ignition interlock.”
According to the DOT, of the DWI offenders who drove vehicles with bypassed interlocks, there were almost 500 tamper violations and 39 alcohol violations that were never reported to Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court.
“Basically (the installer was) making sure that people could drive whether they were intoxicated or not and wasn’t downloading it and giving the information to the courts as he was supposed to,” Lesini said.
So is it possible that the drivers of these vehicles didn’t know that the ignition interlock had been disconnected?
“Larry, if you breathe into the system it will allow you to start the car,” Church said. “They did not have to breathe into the system. I don’t believe there’s any way they could have not known.”
Following an investigation the DOT shut down Budget Interlock in July. Its installer told KRQE News 13 someone else at Budget also knew the interlocks had been bypassed.
“The owner, Joann Santistevan,” the installer said. “She was the manager, owner. I was an employee.”
Santistevan, who was president of Budget Interlock, said the installer’s claim is not true and that he acted alone.
“He was a trusted employee, and I did not know that he was circumventing the system,” Santistevan said. “There’s no way I would put people’s lives in danger if they are supposed to be installed properly.”
Santistevan described herself as, “Upset. Angry that he ruined my livelihood, my business, when I trusted him.”
The installer denies taking money under the table to rig interlocks.
“Nothing was done for any monetary gain because that was never even a thought,” the installer said adding no one offered him money or anything else to disconnect interlocks. “Never. It was never done that way, no.”
ADS isn’t so sure.
“Well, we have copies of some checks that were paid to him,” Lesini said. “We don’t know why they would be paid directly to him instead of to the company.”
New Mexico State Police have launched a criminal investigation. Meanwhile, Metro Court has its own investigation into the DWI offenders who beat the system with disabled interlocks.