"I'm not a drinking man myself," the white-bearded, bespectacled driver protested to the business end of a California Highway Patrol flashlight. Claus was the name. Christmas parties were his game.
And when the CHP stopped Santa Claus behind the wheel of a sedate-looking sedan Saturday night, Claus sailed through the El Toro sobriety checkpoint with flying colors. So to speak.
"I'm the most sober Santa Claus you've ever seen," said the man who carried a driver's license issued to Ralph Jones of Mission Viejo.
Jones, still reeling from a night's worth of parties in San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano, masquerades by day as a data-processing consultant for Southern California Edison. He said he took up the Santa Claus job in 1963 after Edison officials complained that "the Santa they had was always drunk."
Floodlights, Warning Signs
Jones was one of 373 drivers stopped between 9 p.m. and 1 a.m. Saturday night at the CHP's first Orange County sobriety checkpoint, an intimidating block of floodlights, warning signs, traffic cones and patrol officers with probing flashlights set up near the intersection of Muirlands and Los Alisos boulevards.
The idea, CHP officials said, was not so much to arrest drunk drivers--in fact, no one was arrested, though 14 drivers were administered field sobriety tests--but to deter tipsy partygoers from attempting to pilot their own automobiles homeward.
Similar checkpoints elsewhere in California have achieved a 19% drop in the number of drunk driving-related accidents, said Harvey Heaton, public affairs coordinator for the CHP's border division.
The El Toro area selected for Orange County's first CHP checkpoint--nearly identical to several conducted by the Anaheim Police Department last year--has been a particular problem for law-enforcement officers, yielding
193 drunk-driving arrests and 16 alcohol-related accidents during the first 11 months of this year.
And while El Toro and Mission Viejo community leaders have sought a checkpoint in the community for more than a year, the program has not been without controversy. One of Anaheim's arrests last year was thrown out by a Superior Court judge who ruled that the checkpoints were an unconstitutional invasion of privacy.
But a state appellate court in San Francisco this month rejected a similar argument by the American Civil Liberties Union, ruling that "well-publicized, properly placed and timed sobriety checkpoints will have a significant deterrent effect on drunk driving."
In their briefing before Saturday night's excursion, a dozen officers from the CHP's San Juan Capistrano office were cautioned to keep those legal concerns in mind. Motorists were not to be kept waiting in line more than three minutes.
Checks were to be random, stopping only every fourth car in the early hours of the evening, whether or not motorists in the intervening cars appeared drunk. Drivers had clear options to turn away from the checkpoint before reaching it. There were to be no license or registration checks, no equipment citations. Exceptions were only for flagrant violations, and only on the commander's approval.
"This is not a fishing expedition," cautioned Capt. Steve Malone.
The result was a lot of tight-lipped officers Saturday night, watching grimly as prize catches slipped unchecked through the line: a mini-pickup jacked up so high it nearly teetered over, a yellow Camaro belching black smoke and a trail of oil in its wake, a blonde passenger giggling at officers: "I'm so drunk!"
'An Excellent Idea'
Several motorists flashed thumbs-up signs or called "Merry Christmas" as they made their way through--even most of those pulled over for further examination.
"I think it's an excellent idea. I think it's fantastic," said Maris Manley of El Toro, waiting in the passenger's seat while her girlfriend successfully walked a straight line and recited the alphabet. "I think it's a good idea," said a man on his way home from a party who passed the field sobriety test several minutes later. "We had a very good friend who was killed by a drunk driver."
Eve Millers thought the tests were a good idea, too, as she watched her husband trying to balance on one foot after having had a beer and several cups of coffee at a Christmas open house.
"It's okay. We live in this neighborhood, and it's probably a good idea, although I think they picked the wrong street," said Millers. But presently, a CHP officer was explaining to Millers that her husband would have to be taken to Orange County Jail for a breath analysis.
Didn't Have License
"He only had one beer, I can't believe it," said Millers while, with one glass of champagne under her belt, she teetered through her own sobriety test on high heels. She wasn't going to be allowed to drive the family car home, officers told her. That left Phil Haas, a neighbor who had been catching a ride home with the Millers, who did manage to pass the test.
But Haas didn't have his driver's license with him. He and Mrs. Millers would have to walk more than a mile to his house to pick up his license and come back for the car, officers told him.
"We live three blocks from here. We could have walked home, and now I'm going to have to go down to Orange County Jail and pay $500 or whatever to get him out? And now they want me to take the test, and my legs are shaking I'm so furious?" Millers said angrily.
Karl Millers was not arrested after the test.
Three youths were cited for driving into the checkpoint with open containers.
"I would say basically we accomplished what we wanted to do, and that was to make drinking drivers aware of the hazards they create," said Sgt. Robert Walker, officer in charge, at the end of the evening.
Cari Waite of Anaheim, representing Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, said there are an estimated 125 drunk driving-related deaths in Orange County each year. "It's a deterrent--that's the important thing," said Waite, who stood quietly on the sidewalk next to the checkpoint for most of the evening.
Waite said she began promoting similar deterrent measures a few years ago, when she began following a case in which a drunk driver had killed a father and daughter and left a mother in a coma as the family was returning home from dinner and a movie.
Only last year, Waite said, she learned that her father had been killed in an automobile accident in Arizona. His blood alcohol level was measured at .27, nearly three times the legal driving limit of .10.
"It was one of those things that you just can't touch," she said, as the evening wore on. "It was a phone call I'd been expecting for 15 years."