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Drunk Drivers Beware

Medford police officer Robert Rightnour found his niche after joining the force a little less than three years ago.

Rightnour's 80 drunken-driving arrests so far this year lead the department, prompting police Chief Tim George to deem him a "DUII hound."

"Rightnour is getting after it out there," George said. "He is one of the reasons we are probably going to break a record for the number of DUIIs in 2011."

So far this year, the department has made 420 arrests for driving under the influence of intoxicants. That puts the agency on pace for 600 DUII busts for the year, which would be a record. The department made 400 DUII arrests all of last year.

The bulk of the arrests happen on the weekend, of course.

"The officers who work Friday, Saturday and Sunday are making the most DUII stops," George said. "In fact, 134 of the 420 DUIIs have come from three officers. They work the weekend shift."

Anyone who goes bar-hopping in Medford on a weekend night has to be aware of the police presence in the downtown area.

Medford patrol cars make continuous loops through the downtown corridor, looking for drivers who seem to have trouble staying within their lanes or who make illegal turns.

Those are the tell-tale signs that a driver may have imbibed a bit too much before cranking the key and taking off for home, Rightnour said.

"You have to pay attention to all the cars on the road on weekend nights," he said. "When you see one that is having trouble staying in the lane or driving erratically, then you make the stop."

The bulk of his shift is spent on DUII patrol, a task he said he enjoys — even though one DUII arrest can mean up to 10 hours of paperwork and court time.

"It's a lot of work," he said. "DUII reports can be long and detailed. Also, you might have to attend a DMV hearing and then even a trial."

The Medford department is just large enough to allow officers to specialize in certain crimes. Some cops lean toward scoring drug busts, while others chase warrants when they are not answering 9-1-1 calls.

Rightnour believes his calling is conducting the sometimes frustrating, and sometimes dangerous, DUII sobriety tests on the side of the street.

"I've had people fight me," he said. "People who have had too much to drink can be aggressive. And the DUII can be a stressful situation."

Rightnour recalls grappling with a drunk at Providence Medford Medical Center. The man drove his equally intoxicated girlfriend to the hospital and was reported by staff as a menace on the road. Rightnour approached the man in the hospital and the fight was on.

"I ended up charging him with DUII," he said. "He was apologetic afterward. He might not have even realized what he was doing because he was very intoxicated at the time."

The bump in DUII arrests this year is the result of a variety of factors, George said. The increase does not necessarily mean more drunk people are on the road.

"We have been short-staffed in recent years, so that affects our numbers," George said. "We are approaching full staff, so we just have more people on the road making DUII arrests."

Some might argue the department focuses too heavily on DUIIs, perhaps at the cost of pursuing other crimes. After all, a DUII is only a misdemeanor.

Rightnour doesn't see it that way.

"The bottom line is getting drunk drivers off the street," he said. "I've been on accident scenes where drunk drivers injure other people and themselves."

On Saturday, Rightnour cruised downtown for several hours before he was called to a car reported swerving in its lane near South Riverside Avenue.

The man agreed to a sobriety test that included staring at a pen to check for nystagmus. Nystagmus is an eye disorder that appears when a person is intoxicated. The pupils bounce when crossing from side to side.

After watching the man's eyes, Rightnour asked the man to hold up one foot and count. The man seemed unsteady on his feet, but was able to complete the task.

After another look into the man's eyes, Rightnour made his determination.

"I appreciate that you've been cooperative," Rightnour said. "But I am going to arrest you for DUII."

The man later blew a blood-alcohol content of .13 in a breathalyzer, which is above the legal limit of .08.

Rightnour pulled over a handful of drivers for traffic infractions before his DUII arrest. He stopped drivers for rolling through stop signs and driving a bit too fast. On a few occasions the driver admitted to having a few drinks. Rightnour put them through the paces of a sobriety test and then let them go when he determined they were able to drive safely.

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 541-776-4471; or email cconrad@mailtribune.com.

The Medford Police Department is on track to set a record for DUII arrests this year and Officer Robert Rightnour is leading the charge with 80 arrests to date. - Julia Moore