• Mario Nicolais

Stigmatizing Dan Pabon

State Rep. Dan Pabon made a mistake. Nobody knows that better than Dan Pabon.


After police video of his St. Patrick’s Day DUI arrest surfaced, Pabon again finds himself in an unwanted spotlight. Pabon appears on the tape pleading with an officer to avoid an arrest. As so often happens, one mistake led to another. Pabon made a series of bad choices and now faces the consequences.


But stigmatization by the media and political opponents shouldn’t be one of them.


Sensational media stories and calls for his resignation do nothing to change what happened. They do not help educate the public on the tragically commonplace crime of drunk driving. And I guarantee they won’t make Pabon feel any worse about the incident than he already must. In fact, those stigmatizing Pabon so severely may inadvertently be working against potentially positive outcomes that could be spurred by Pabon’s bad choice.


I am sensitive to this stigma because I have lived with it.


Six years ago, an officer pulled me over in Littleton. While I had been drinking, I didn’t feel “drunk.” That night, I followed several rules of thumb I thought would keep me in the clear. Rules of thumb I learned through urban myth and rules of thumb I learned representing defendants in law school. I ate dinner while drinking wine. I had less than one drink per hour. I drank water between each glass and before I left. And when the officer arrested me, I found out that none made a difference. My roadside sobriety test indicated a 0.075 blood alcohol content while my subsequent blood tests put the level at 0.083 and 0.086 (in Colorado, 0.05 is classified as driving while ability impaired while 0.08 is considered driving under the influence).


There is only one effective rule of thumb, the one Pabon and I learned the hard way: if you drink, do not drive.


It is a simple rule and one self-aggrandizing Pabon critics point out with fervor. And almost everyone who drinks alcohol has broken it. That is the problem with the stigma. While many people reading about Pabon quietly think, “There but for the grace of God go I,” little additional analysis occurs. The public shame associated with the offense is so severe that people like Pabon and I do not talk about it. When every mention becomes an attack, the inclination is to weather the storm and then avoid broaching the subject again.


That outcome would be a shame in Pabon’s case. This is his first offense. By all accounts, he has taken full responsibility following his arrest, apologizing to his family, his community, and his constituents. He did not fight the charges — or subsequently attempt to capitalize on his position — but pleaded guilty at his first chance. He accepted a lengthy array of mandatory punishments. But what is more, he is in a position to speak out and lead from experience. I hope that opportunity is not lost.


In the grand scheme, Pabon and I were both “lucky.” We did not get in an accident and we did not hurt someone else. Police officers pulled us over and saved us from any truly long-term tragedy. I am thankful for that and I know Pabon is as well. Many others are not that lucky.


On Aug. 6, Mothers Against Drunk Driving will hold their annual “Walk Like MADD” fundraiser at Sloan’s Lake in Denver. That is within the boundaries of Pabon’s House District 4. Rather than piling on Pabon, I invite him to take part in helping to stop others from making the same mistake. And if he chooses to walk, rather than adding to the stigma, I will walk alongside him.


Read this column from The Colorado Statesman online in ColoradoPolitics.com.

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