DWI Suspect had Two Drinks on Flight, State Says

May 24, 2007
Man arrested on a drunken-driving charge shortly after getting off a US Airways flight

The state's initial investigation into whether an Albuquerque man was served too much alcohol on an airplane, then drove drunk, indicates that he had two drinks during a 48-minute flight from Phoenix, a state official said.

Ernest Wright, who was arrested on a drunken-driving charge shortly after getting off a US Airways flight late Friday night, also appears to have had three drinks before leaving the Phoenix airport, Department of Public Safety spokesman Peter Olson said.

Wright, 49, was arrested at a South Valley DWI checkpoint after he blew twice the legal alcohol limit on a Breathalyzer, said Bernalillo County Sheriff Darren White, who happened to be on duty.

"He blew a 0.16," White said. "It's clear to me that, by the time he was drinking on that airplane, he was already over the legal limit. He shouldn't have been served."

White said Wright was carrying a receipt from an Albuquerque International Sunport parking lot indicating that he left the airport at 11:37 p.m. He was arrested shortly after midnight.

"That tells me that it's unlikely he had anything else to drink" after leaving the plane, White said.

While the legal limit for driving is 0.08, the breath-alcohol limit used as a basis for citations against liquor servers is 0.14, according to a state law passed last year.

Citations can also be issued if agents can show a person displayed signs of obvious intoxication, the law says.

Olson said the information about how much Wright had to drink in Phoenix and on the flight came from Wright himself. The state has launched its own investigation of US Airways, which the state says served Wright.

US Airways was also investigated after another Phoenix-to-Albuquerque passenger crashed into a family's minivan while driving the wrong way on I-25 near Santa Fe.

Dana Papst, 44, was killed along with five members of the family. His blood-alcohol level was 0.32.

Passengers described Papst as visibly intoxicated on the flight - though that account was disputed. A Bernalillo convenience store was cited for selling Papst a six-pack of beer during his drive north.

After a dispute over whether the airline needed a New Mexico liquor license, US Airways was issued a temporary license on March 14, said Bob Hagan, a spokesman for the New Mexico Regulation and Licensing Department.

The airline has applied for a permanent license. If it is cited in the Wright case, that would affect the state's evaluation of US Airways' application, Hagan said.

No hearing on that application has been scheduled. If the application is denied, Hagan said the state's position is that the airline cannot serve alcohol on any flight to or from New Mexico.

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