YOLO COUNTY NEWS
Karen Johnson, a state certified alcohol and drug counselor, leads a class for people convicted of DUI. Fred Gladdis/Enterprise photo

Features

Drunken drivers pay the price

By April 8, 2011

It was boredom, essentially, that led to John’s tour through the criminal justice system.

The UC Davis graduate student was new in town and decided to check out the Sacramento nightlife one night last July.

“I went to a bar and drank a fair share, but I didn’t feel overly inebriated,” said John, 22, who asked that his last name be withheld. As he headed home, he accidentally turned the wrong way down a one-way street.

“Alas, it had a police officer on it,” John said. Although he felt fine, the officer got a different vibe and put John through a field sobriety test.

Two blows through a Breathalyzer delivered results of .092 and .085 — above the legal driving limit of .08.

So instead of heading home, John got a side trip to the Sacramento County Jail.

“It was my first time and, I tell you, it’s definitely going to be my last time,” said John, who was released about 16 hours later. From there, he paid $300 to get his impounded car out of a downtown Sacramento tow yard.

That was just the beginning. Since then, John also has paid attorney fees, court fines, and alcohol and drug program costs. A restricted driving permit, community service and an ignition interlock device have racked up additional costs.

But John admits he has no one to blame but himself.

“I’m not a victim in any sense,” he said of his impaired driving. “I clearly put people in danger by doing it.”

With events such as Picnic Day, Cinco de Mayo and Memorial Day weekend approaching — when revelers are known to celebrate with a few spirits — many people like John are expected to learn the high cost of one of California’s most common misdemeanors.

Last year, the Yolo County District Attorney’s Office prosecuted 1,081 people for driving under the influence of alcohol, defined as being over age 21 and driving with a blood-alcohol content of .08 or above.

An expensive lesson

Once a person gets arrested, it doesn’t take long for the charges to start adding up.

For those without a friend or relative to pick them up from jail, there’s the cost of a taxi or bus ride home. As John discovered, it can costs several hundred dollars to reclaim an impounded car — possibly more, the longer it’s held.

The costs continue to increase once the court process begins. Currently, the standard fine for a DUI is $3,054, said Yolo Superior Court Judge David Reed, who handles the court’s misdemeanor calendar.

“DUIs are kind of in a class by themselves because they’re considered among the most serious of misdemeanor crimes,” Reed said.

Getting four DUI arrests within 10 years or causing an injury accident while driving drunk can boost the charge from a misdemeanor to a felony, “which carries the risk of prison,” Reed said.

Under a new law that takes effect in January 2012, anyone who gets three DUIs within 10 years will lose their driver’s license for a decade.

A first-time DUI offender also can expect to receive three years’ probation, two days in county jail — which can be served through a Sheriff’s Department work project for additional fees — and be ordered to complete an alcohol education program.

In Davis, those classes are offered by Safety Center Inc. on Second Street, which also operates programs in Woodland and West Sacramento.

The programs last anywhere from six weeks to 18 months and cost $221 to $1,617, depending on the defendant’s previous offenses, if any, and his or her blood-alcohol content at the time of the arrest.

Karen Johnson, a Safety Center drug and alcohol counselor, said she has seen clients who have lost their jobs or college scholarships as a result of DUI convictions. Her goal, she said, is to curb the behavior that led to the arrest, or at least offer alternatives to drinking and driving.

“Thirty dollars for a taxi is a lot cheaper than going through this again,” she said.

To plead or not to plead?

Although some people handle their DUI cases without legal representation, most go through the process with the help of either a private attorney or court-appointed public defender.

Obtaining a public defender’s help costs a flat fee of $150 for an adult misdemeanor case if the client can demonstrate a financial need. Otherwise, they are expected to hire private counsel.

Jeffrey Raven, a former public defender who now operates a private practice, says he charges $1,500 for a typical DUI case that gets resolved early on. In the rare instance that a case goes to trial, the cost can increase by another $2,000 to $4,000, he said.

Most clients don’t fight the charges, but hire an attorney “to make sure that everything is taken care of appropriately, and save themselves the embarrassment of showing up in court,” Raven said.

The cases that do reach the trial stage tend to focus on issues surrounding the arrest. Was the traffic stop that led to the arrest legal? Did the officer have good cause to pursue a DUI investigation? Some defense attorneys also challenge the testing method that led to the arrest, particularly if the defendant’s blood-alcohol content was close to the legal limit.

While those types of cases certainly can cost more money, some DUI arrests can cost the defendants their freedom.

In 2001, Eduardo Jaime of Woodland received a 33-years-to-life prison sentence after being convicted of second-degree murder for causing a collision that killed a Knights Landing woman and her 14-year-old daughter.

Prosecutors argued that Jaime, who at age 22 was already twice convicted of DUI and still had a suspended license, should have known better than to get behind the wheel. His BAC was .20 — more than twice the legal limit.

“He knew the risks, and he consciously disregarded those risks,” Deputy District Attorney James Walker, who prosecuted the case, said during one of Jaime’s court hearings.

The long-term reminders

Long after the court case is closed, the fines paid and the sentence served, one painful reminder of the DUI conviction endures: the automobile insurance bill.

Craig Cooper, president of C.C. Cooper & Sons in Davis — whose independent agents do business with about a half-dozen insurance companies — said a drunken driver can expect higher insurance bills for three years past the conviction date, as well as a 10-year loss of California’s 20 percent good driver discount.

For example, a 26-year-old single male living in Davis, driving a safe and reliable Toyota Camry and who has an otherwise clean record, could pay about $525 every six months, about $200 more than without the DUI conviction.

“Obviously, if you’ve got a DUI, then that’s not good for you, it’s not good for your car and it’s not good for other people,” Cooper said.

Additionally, a person convicted of DUI is required to carry an SR22 form, purchased from their insurance company, in which they pledge to carry insurance for at least three years, whether or not they have a car. The cost: about $15 to $40.

“It’s like a little handcuff that says you’ll buy insurance for three years,” Cooper said.

But sometimes, an arrest can have a positive outcome. For John, it was a lifestyle change.

“It’s changed my behavior, and it’s reduced my alcohol consumption significantly,” he said. “Basically, I’m a Diet Coke fiend now.”

— Reach Lauren Keene at [email protected] or (530) 747-8048.

Lauren Keene

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