City hit with DUI suit

Chico part of lawsuit that says fines connected with drunk driving go too far

HELP IS ON THE WAY<br>For years Chico police officers have called for emergency response back-up after pulling over suspected drunken drivers. The suspects were then billed for the extra help. A recent lawsuit, naming Chico as a defendant, is challenging that practice.

For years Chico police officers have called for emergency response back-up after pulling over suspected drunken drivers. The suspects were then billed for the extra help. A recent lawsuit, naming Chico as a defendant, is challenging that practice.

Photo By Mark Thalman

Matters of priority: The Chico Municipal Code says, in part, that cost recovery fees for convicted drunk drivers are legitimate because just collecting when a drunk driver is involved in an “incident,” as required by state law, is “insufficient because the apprehension and arrest of all drivers under the influence of alcohol or any drug are expensive and time-consuming, even though they may not require an emergency response.”

The city of Chico has been named in a class-action lawsuit filed in Santa Clara County that says the city illegally collects emergency response costs in connection with drunk-driving arrests.

Los Gatos attorney Bradley C. Arnold filed the suit that says Chico is one of at least two dozen towns, counties and cities that are illegally collecting the costs.

In a letter to some local attorneys, Arnold says that cities like Chico “are billing people for costs of law enforcement under circumstances where no actual emergency response was made.”

For years Chico has enforced a policy whereby, whenever a city cop comes across a suspected drunk driver, he or she calls for an emergency response, meaning more officers are called in and the suspect, if convicted, is eventually billed for their time.

In the fiscal year ending June 30, 2001, Chico garnered almost $70,000 from those convicted of DUI where city police responded and made the arrest. At that time the cost was $27.13 per officer for the first 30 minutes and 90 cents per minute after that.

The suit currently names about 24 cities and three collection agencies as defendants in the suit, and there are 12 plaintiffs and 10 attorneys involved thus far.

“The legislative history [of the emergency response costs] says it was meant to compensate a city for extra costs involved in an accident,” Arnold explained. “Things like directing traffic or laying out flares. It certainly doesn’t apply to someone pulled over for a broken taillight and that the officer suspects may have been drinking.”

He said in a city the size of San Jose, which has on average 3,000 DUIs per year, the city can collect as much as $1 million in emergency costs related to DUI stops.

Arnold said most people who get arrested for DUI have never gone through a criminal process before, beyond a simple traffic ticket.

“They suddenly get all of this criminal paperwork, including this bill from the city that says ‘you must pay this by law,’ and they don’t question it,” he said. “We say that is absolutely illegal.”

Arnold is quick to point out that he “does not advocate DUI by any stretch of the imagination.”

And in fact, he said, the negative stigma that comes with DUI probably helps pave the way for cities to collect such revenue because the accused simply want to get on with their lives and put such matters behind them.

Arnold contacted local attorneys William Mayo and Joe VanDervoort, both of whom represent clients accused of DUI.

VanDervoort has been fighting such billing on his clients’ behalf for years.

“You get a bill for being arrested for DUI, but not for child molestation, drug dealing or anything else—not even burglary,” VanDervoort said. “They end up calling every cop who’s eating a doughnut within five miles of the stop.”

He said he’s tried to warn the city in the past that what it was doing was illegal and that it could end up on the defensive end of a lawsuit.

“I have a file of research two feet deep on this,” VanDervoort said. “Other counties have said, if you’re going to collect for arrests, you have to collect for all arrests, not just DUI. The law does say you can collect for emergency responses where there is an accident, and that makes sense. If you’ve got to bring a fire truck or if you run down a telephone pole, you have to pay for it. I’m not denying that. But I’m just talking about your usual weaver at 2:05 a.m. who makes a wrong turn at Third and Wall.”

None of VanDervoort’s clients, to his knowledge, have paid the arrest fees.

“I send them all a letter saying they shouldn’t. When [former City Councilmember] Rick Keene was mayor, I sent him some correspondence about this. He agreed with me, but he never took an official position. Ninety percent of the people who get arrested go to court, they plead guilty and they don’t want the publicity, so they just knuckle under—they get the [cost recovery] bill, they pay it. Ninety percent, minimum.

“I’ve dealt with the city on this for probably 15 years. Nobody wants drunk drivers on the road. Neither do I. Who’s gonna stand up and say, ‘Hey, I’m in favor of drinking drivers'?"