DUIs in Sacramento: Sphere of influence

Law enforcement and attorneys say CHP performs more DUI arrests in Midtown and downtown Sacramento than in most other California citites

Midtown and downtown Sacramento are more than just hotspots for nightlife: Law enforcement and attorneys say the California Highway Patrol now makes the majority of DUI arrests in these central-city neighborhoods, possibly more than in any other urban district in California. Which has a unique fiscal upside for the Sacramento Police Department: CHP gets no money for enforcing local DUIs, but the city and county still get upward of $700 per infraction.

This is unusual—highway patrol typically patrols highways, to state the obvious. But “you’re not going to find more CHP anywhere else than in downtown Sacramento,” as local DUI attorney Michael Rehm put it.

“They’re camped out over by the Capitol, by all the bars, almost like it’s a war zone,” he said.

Police are not complaining, however, about the CHP’s unique role. In fact, police currently face another round of serious budget cuts, and a spokesperson with the department’s DUI-enforcement team said they embrace the CHP’s assistance.

But critics point out that CHP vehicles often are not equipped with surveillance cameras. This is a point of concern, according to DUI attorneys such as Rehm (who is also a District 4 city-council candidate) because the CHP seems to have taken on more drunk-driving enforcement efforts in the central city during the first few months of 2012. He estimates that the CHP now performs upward of 80 percent of all Midtown and downtown DUIs.

Other local DUI attorneys agree, such as Tim Brown, who works for Denis H. White Law, one of the busiest offices in Sacramento. He told SN&R that he’s recently seen about 20 DUI cases per month, and none of them were from the police; they all came from CHP.

“I think they get a little bored at night,” Brown speculated. “It’s kind of strange that, for at least the past few months, they’ve been handling all the DUIs.”

Both police and Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department deputies have cameras installed on squad cars and motorcycles and document DUI arrests as a best practice.

The Sacramento police acknowledge that the CHP is performing a majority of DUI arrests lately. “They really have nothing better to do than drive around looking for a DUI,” said DUI enforcement team Sgt. Christian Prince. “They’re poaching there, because they know all the DUIs are downtown.”

On any given recent night in downtown and Midtown, CHP makes around 60 percent of the DUI arrests, according to Prince. He says that they sometimes make arrests on the perimeter of the Midtown-downtown grid close to freeway onramps. “It is also not uncommon for them to be transporting a DUI to jail,” he said, “and make a stop while en route.”

There is currently no 2012 CHP DUI arrest data available, but citations by CHP across the state have been in decline since 2008.

Prince reiterated that city police is grateful for the help. “[CHP officers] are right where they need to be, as far as where the DUIs are,” he said. “We are happy to have them downtown, where there are plenty of DUI drivers. They are preventing them from traveling on the roadways—whether it is a city street or a freeway—possibly preventing a fatal accident.”

The CHP has a bolstered presence in the central city because its officers guard the Capitol and nearby state buildings. This unit is actually called the Office of Capitol Services, or OCAPS, a distinct Midtown and downtown group that does not exist in any other California city.

OCAPS Officer Sean Kennedy told SN&R that CHP does not seek out DUIs, but that they do not turn a blind eye to crime in the central city.

He shared a story of how, last week, a drunk driver almost hit his patrol car on Ninth Street near OCAPS’ downtown headquarters. “It doesn’t matter where you’re at. You have to ask, ‘What would the public expect of you?’ Just because you’re in the city area, you just don’t say ‘Oh, that’s not my problem.’”

Kennedy said OCAPS, which typically has two to three vehicles on patrol on Friday and Saturday nights, isn’t likely performing more DUI enforcement than normal.

But there are also two other CHP offices in the Sacramento area, one in north Sacramento and the other in the south, both part of the Valley Division. OCAPS is encompassed by the Valley Division—which extends east into the Sierras and to Stockton, Chico and Jackson—but is actually its own separate unit. OCAPS sometimes referred to by CHP as “headquarters.”

Officers from all three of these stations make DUI arrests downtown, according to law enforcement and DUI attorneys. And this is in part why the CHP’s share of the total citations is disproportionately higher than in other cities.

While OCAPS makes many of the arrests, over the past couple months most of the cases Brown has dealt with came from the CHP South Sacramento Station off of Mack Road.

And the CHP is also busy outside Midtown and downtown. Sheriff’s department spokesman Jason Ramos explained that the county also has an agreement that CHP handle all DUI arrests in the unincorporated county. “If a deputy stops a vehicle,” he told SN&R, “and the driver is suspected of being under the influence, we notify CHP and they respond to the scene.”

This would all be well and fine except that up until a short time ago, none of the CHP vehicles were equipped with audiovisual surveillance cameras to monitor officers during arrests. Currently, only about one-third of the patrol cars are outfitted statewide, according to the CHP.

“They should have the patrol-car videos,” argued Rehm. “Technically, they aren’t violating anyone’s rights by not having them, but they should have them.”

The police and the sheriff’s department say they value their surveillance gear as impartial witnesses. The police department is in the process of upgrading all its surveillance equipment, and also adding surveillance to motorcycles. This overhaul comes on the heels of the Brandon Mullock case: The former city-police DUI task-force officer was charged with 34 counts of perjury because of discrepancies between his reports and footage from his squad-car camera. The district attorney’s office has dropped nearly half of the 144 Mullock arrests reviewed.

Cameras also can be helpful in special cases. Prince said that while it is rare, officers sometimes will arrest people for DUI even if they are under the legal limit of .08 blood-alcohol content.

“When we get a breath sample at the jail and find out they are under [the legal limit], it is often a surprise, because they performed so badly during the field sobriety tests,” said Prince. But where police can always look back over the tapes to see how an arrest was made, CHP cannot.

CHP public information officer Adrian Quintero told SN&R that he would like to have more patrol cars outfitted with cameras; they are currently fitting 3,000 of them. He explained high costs have prevented CHP from equipping more cars.

Law enforcement uses cameras to monitor officer safety, as well as debunk “frivolous” complaints, Quintero said.

There is an upside of Sacramento’s DUI distribution for police coffers. The city can more or less make money off DUI fines without allocating additional resources for enforcement. When a DUI fine is paid, the state gets a hunk of the money and so does the city, indiscriminate of whom makes the arrest.

Police and the sheriff’s department can receive upward of $700 per DUI arrest. Additionally, the county receives $701 per arrest that goes toward fingerprinting, jail construction and other special costs. The CHP receives no direct funding for DUI arrests.

“I think a large misconception is that CHP is funded through DUI. Which is not true, and it’s kind of ironic,” said OCAPS officer Kennedy.

But Rehm argues that the state should explore changing this distribution of funds. “Every law enforcement agency gets a cut from the fines. Instead, some should go to the arresting agency and some should go to a public-transit fund,” Rehm said.

Investing in public transportation is a proven method to cut down on the number of people who drive drunk. Big cities such as San Francisco and New York City, for instance, surprisingly boast fewer DUI arrests per capita than Sacramento.