Sunday, February 8, 2009

Discussion of California DUI checkpoints in central coast

California DUI criminal defense lawyers and California drunk driving criminal attorneys met with DUI & DMV lawyers at to discuss DUI checkpoints in California.

Every week somewhere on the Central Coast: A line of cars snaking through a line of orange cones and into a police DUI checkpoint.

Officers peer intently into vehicle windows and talk to the drivers, looking for telltale signs of intoxication: red eyes, slurred speech, alcohol on their breath.

Most drivers pass through quickly and are sent on their way, but a few are found to be driving under the influence. They are taken into custody and their vehicles are impounded.

For the officers involved, these are small victories in the never-ending war against drunken driving and the carnage that it too often causes.

They have learned that “Don’t drink and drive” is more than a slogan, having seen firsthand the injuries and death and shattered lives.

“It gives us a little more drive to seek these drivers under the influence,” said Lt. Rico Flores of the Santa Maria Police Department. “It does hit us personally. No one wants to see anybody hurt or killed, and especially when they’re under the influence.”

Officers know that these types of crashes shouldn’t happen, he said. That knowledge breeds action.

Having officers specifically looking for drunken drivers is highly effective in taking the offenders off the streets, according to local law enforcement officials.

But doing so is a luxury that is typically reserved for officers working special overtime shifts paid for with grant money — funds that could be at risk of disappearing due to tough financial times.

Grants vital

to patrols, checkpoints

Having special patrols on the streets and highways, and checkpoints at which drivers are stopped and checked for signs of driving under the influence and for proper license and registration, has sent the message that those who violate the law will get in trouble, officials say. It also has helped curb hit-and-run crashes.

Deputy Win Smith of the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department oversees the DUI enforcement program in Santa Barbara County known as “Avoid the 12,” which ties together efforts from a dozen local law-enforcement agencies.

The program, which kicked off in October 2007 and is set to run through the end of 2010, is paid for by a $511,000 grant from the state Office of Traffic Safety, he said.

The grant pays for DUI checkpoints, patrols looking for drunken drivers and other operations related to stopping drunken driving.

Grants are vital to enabling Santa Barbara County law enforcement agencies to have officers focus only on busting inebriated drivers, Smith said.

Smith said that he knows of only two cities in the county — Santa Barbara and Buellton — that have an officer specifically working DUI patrol on a regular basis.

Even then, the Buellton officer only works DUI patrol at certain times, Smith said.

“If we didn’t have the grant, those are the only two ... that are dedicated (to) looking for DUI drivers and that would probably continue,” he said.

Officers doing their regular duties look out for drunken drivers, Smith said, but are often stuck going from call to call without time to really focus on drinking and driving offenders.

Smith has seen firsthand the tragedy that driving under the influence can cause, and he’s not alone.

“You can hardly find anybody nowadays that has not been affected by a drunk driver in some aspect,” Smith said.

Smith can rattle off a list of drunken-driving tragedies he’s responded to: The motorcyclist who lost control and crashed, killing his girlfriend who was riding on the back of the bike; the speeding driver killed when he lost control of his car and rolled the vehicle. Luckily, his passenger survived.

On a personal note, his friend Laura Cleaves, an investigator with the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office, was killed in a collision with an alleged drunken driver in May.

“That, I think, influenced a number of people in the department who knew her,” Smith said. “Many of the fatals that we investigate are caused by people who are under the influence. Drunk drivers.”

Smith said that with the economy struggling, there’s concern that the grant money so vital to cracking down on drunken drivers could dry up.

“To think we’re basically relying on grant money for what is a real serious crime problem concerns me,” he said.

Cracking down

on drunken driving

Smith noted that during DUI crackdowns in December of the last three years, the number of DUI arrests has increased while the number of fatal DUI crashes has also increased.

In the last three weeks of December 2006, 165 people were arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence across the county, and 18 injury collisions were related to driving under the influence.

In the same period in December 2007, 213 DUI arrests were made, and there were 14 injury DUI crashes and one DUI-related death.

In the final three weeks of December 2008, there were 223 DUI arrests, 18 injury DUI crashes and two DUI-related deaths.

As to whether the crackdowns are successful, “it depends on how you define success,” Smith said.

The results could be viewed as either there’s more drunken drivers to be found each year, or officers are taking more drunken drivers off the streets, he said.

The primary purpose of Avoid the 12 is to take drunken drivers off the road, Smith said, but unlicensed drivers are also nabbed.

At a checkpoint run by Santa Maria police on a recent chilly night, a line of cars backed up on Broadway as officers, aided by police Explorer scouts, stopped every few cars to question the driver and determine whether he or she was driving under the influence. They also checked for valid driver’s licenses and registrations.

A couple weeks later, a similar scene played out in Lompoc.

“For the most part, they’re all willing to comply,” said Cpl. Jesse Silva as he watched the Santa Maria operation.

Those driving under the influence or with no license tend to be the only people who take issue with the checkpoints, he said, noting that intoxicated drivers are typically evasive.

Such checkpoints are funded by a grant that went into effect Oct. 1. The DUI Enforcement and Awareness Program is run through a grant given out by the OTS, and lasts 12 months. The grant pays for checkpoints that look for drunken drivers and unlicensed drivers, as well as patrols that watch specifically for drunken drivers.

The department plans on doing two checkpoints a month, Silva said.

Santa Maria Police Chief Danny Macagni said that more than 600 cars had been impounded for unlicensed drivers since the $307,000 grant started in October.

“A lot of times our DUI drivers are unlicensed,” he said.

Hit-and-run crashes have gone down as the checkpoints have been conducted, Macagni said.

Flores said hit-and-run crashes have fallen because they often involve unlicensed drivers who flee the scene so they won’t get caught.

During the Santa Maria checkpoint, 1,053 vehicles were screened and two people were arrested on suspicion of DUI. Seven vehicles were impounded because of unlicensed drivers, and two vehicles were towed because of the DUI arrests.

One or two arrests on suspicion of driving under the influence were typical in a number of recent DUI checkpoints conducted in Santa Maria and Lompoc.

Sgt. Danny Rios of the Lompoc Police Department said his department received a “mini grant” for $111,000 strictly for DUI checkpoints. That grant started in December, and is set to run through September, he said.

The department has already held several checkpoints funded by the grant, he said.

Education key to prevention

DUI enforcement is not just to get drunken drivers off the street, Rios said, but also to educate people about how to report drunken drivers.

He pointed out that drunken driving can have negative effects — both financial and criminal — not only for the driver, but for others as well.

Quite often the DUI driver walks away from a crash relatively unscathed, he said, because he or she is lethargic and somewhat relaxed at the time of impact. Meanwhile, innocent people can pay a huge price, sometimes with their lives.

“(DUI drivers) seem to make it,” Rios said.

“It’s not worth it. It will change your life forever,” he said of drunken driving.

Santa Maria resident Catherine Harper is painfully aware of the human cost of drunken driving.

Her son, 26-year-old Brandon Harper of Santa Maria, was killed two years ago when Miguel Angel Garibay, who was driving drunk while fleeing from sheriff’s deputies, crashed into his pickup after Garibay ran a red light at the intersection of Betteravia Road and Broadway.

Garibay, of Santa Maria, was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Harper said her father became deathly sick after Brandon died, and her mother is still suffering terribly with grief.

“And I myself, ... I’ll never be the same,” she said. “My life was taken away from me.

“I have to try to live my new life as best I can, but Brandon was my only child, and nobody understands this walk unless they go through it.”

Harper said that she fully supports DUI checkpoints.

“I think they’re great. I think we need more of them.”

California Highway Patrol officers in the county said a “winery grant” from the OTS — more than $600,000 in 2008 — is the main DUI-prevention tool for areas patrolled by the CHP.

The grant focuses on responsible wine tasting, and CHP officers join forces with area vintners, tasting rooms and limo and bus companies to work the program, Barba said.

“It’s an awful big partner,” Barba said of grant money.

Officers have been going the route of education and prevention to stop drunken driving, Barba said.

“And it’s a positive way of saving lives. Getting to people before we have to arrest them,” he added.

Sgt. Mike Clare with the CHP in Santa Maria said that officers are willing and able to work overtime hours to focus on particular offenses.

“When you double up the number of people out there, it makes a big difference,” he said.

Guadalupe Police Chief George Mitchell said that because of his city’s small size, Guadalupe does not qualify for grant money beyond its involvement in Avoid the 12.

“That’s something that we hope will change in the future,” he said. “We’re doing what we can to stay active.”

Another resident who supports the checkpoints is Lanell Summers of Santa Maria, who comes out with her family to watch.

She and other family members turned out recently, bundled up in warm clothes, with lawn chairs that they set up in a parking lot near the action.

“We pretty much stay until it either gets too cold or too slow,” Summers said.

She said she likes to watch the cars get towed away, noting that she’s seen too many hit-and-runs involving alcohol.

Chris Cochran, spokesman for the OTS, said that agencies seeking DUI-enforcement grants must compete for the money.

“We have too many to be able to fund them all, so there’s a little bit of competition to it,” he said.

Cochran noted, however, that there is not an immediate concern of grant money for DUI enforcement drying up, as the money comes from federal sources instead of from the particularly troubled state budget.

Cochran said that close to 40 percent of fatal crashes in California involve alcohol in some way.

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