Nearly one of every five motorists arrested last year in North Carolina for driving while impaired was Hispanic. In Mecklenburg County, one of every four DWI suspects was Hispanic.
Police and Hispanic leaders are troubled by the numbers, which have more than tripled in just seven years—and far exceed the percentage of Latinos in the state.
Hispanic leaders say too many Latinos, most of them male, are drinking and driving—and, too often, dying—because they don’t fully understand the law or the danger.
In 1997, the 3,698 Hispanics charged with DWI represented 5 percent of the more than 78,000 arrests in North Carolina.
Last year, 12,039 Hispanics were charged with DWI. That’s 19 percent of the nearly 62,000 arrests statewide. Hispanics make up an estimated 6 percent of the state’s population.
The percentage of Hispanics being arrested for DWI in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County has increased at an even faster pace.
In 2000, the 225 Hispanics arrested countywide represented 6 percent of the more than 4,000 DWI arrests. Last year, the 913 DWI charges against Hispanics accounted for 25 percent of the more than 3,500 arrests. Hispanics make up about 8 percent of Mecklenburg’s population.
The three Latino-community leaders interviewed by the Observer all said they worry the arrest numbers suggest police engage in some profiling in traffic stops—stopping people based on their race or ethnicity. But they acknowledge they’ve heard no specific complaints about police targeting Hispanics. “Absolutely not,” Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department spokesman Keith Bridges said when asked whether profiling could have anything to do with the large numbers of Hispanics being arrested for DWI.
In Charlotte so far this year, prosecutors blame drinking and driving for two separate killings.
Both of the suspects—Geronimo Villa-Gomez and Raymundo Pineda—are Hispanic.
Villa-Gomez, 25, and Pineda, 22, are now in jail awaiting trial. Villa-Gomez is charged with murder. Prosecutors last week authorized police to charge Pineda with murder.
Police say Villa-Gomez in March struck a vehicle and continued driving until he hit two pedestrians, killing one of them. His alcohol level was 0.20 percent—more than twice the legal limit of 0.08 percent, according to court documents.
Villa-Gomez, accused of killing Tony Anthony Grier, told police he’d had two beers, according to court documents.
Mecklenburg DA Gilchrist worries about the increasing numbers of Hispanics caught driving while drunk and the dangers they pose to other motorists.
“Many don’t have driver’s licenses and don’t know the rules of the road,” Gilchrist said. “That makes them easier to spot and they get arrested.
“Any drunk driver is a danger. But here are folks who may not have driver’s licenses, may not have insurance and are very much at risk of being involved in a crash causing injury or death.”