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Jail for Tipsy Driver Policy OKd by Court

Times Staff Writer

A Superior Court judge Monday upheld Sheriff John Duffy’s new policy of jailing suspected drunk drivers during the holiday season, rejecting the arguments of an attorney who maintained the practice violated a court-imposed limit on the inmate population.

At a hearing called to review Duffy’s week-old system of detaining motorists accused of driving while intoxicated, Judge James A. Malkus concluded that the sheriff may continue to conduct the program--even though the additional jailings have pushed the downtown County Jail population beyond the 750 ceiling set by an earlier court order.

“I’m not satisfied that there’s been a violation of the court order,” Malkus said after hearing brief arguments on both sides of the issue. “Perhaps I’m guilty of tunnel vision . . . but I’m satisfied that the numbers (of inmates) are within the acceptable limits.”

Victory for Duffy

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The judge’s finding represented a victory for Duffy, who has temporarily replaced the county’s normal quick-release program for handling drunk drivers with the new holiday policy of jailing tipsy motorists, who spend an average of 18 to 26 hours in custody.

Under the quick-release program, suspected drunk drivers are turned over to a responsible person after completing alcohol tests. Last week, Duffy and a phalanx of local and state law enforcement officers scrapped that approach for the new policy in hopes of deterring partygoers from taking the wheel after drinking. The sheriff predicted that the thought of spending a night behind bars might make revelers think twice before hitting the highway.

While applauded by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and other civic groups, the change quickly drew criticism from attorneys who represent inmates in lawsuits against the county over the crowded conditions at local jails.

Alex Landon, who has handled two such lawsuits for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the new program threatened to exacerbate the already severe crowding that plagues both the downtown jail and some outlying facilities. Specifically, Landon charged that the increase in bookings would violate the limit of 750 inmates imposed on the jam-packed downtown jail in 1984 by then-Superior Court Judge James Focht.

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Landon also chided Duffy for failing to seek court permission before initiating a program likely to expand the jail population, which has been an issue in Superior Court since the ACLU first sued the county in 1977.

Over the Limit

On Monday, Chief Deputy County Counsel Anthony Albers reported that the downtown jail population has ranged from 718 up to 819 since Thursday. He conceded the number of inmates has surpassed the 750 limit on four of the last five days.

But citing a court order issued in April, Albers argued that Duffy had discretion to violate the cap if necessary to accommodate certain “serious misdemeanants,” including those arrested for domestic violence and drunk drivers.

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“Clearly, it is within the court order to do what we’ve been doing,” Albers argued.

Malkus agreed, saying that the April order was intended to give Duffy discretion as needed to accommodate offenders he believed should be jailed--drunk drivers included.

The judge also bestowed praise upon Duffy’s holiday crackdown. Noting that the number of drunk driving arrests made during the last four days--172--is markedly lower than the 229 made in the same period a year ago, Malkus speculated that “perhaps the knowledge that drunk drivers will not be tolerated on the streets has kept them in the bars and the bedroom.”

No Quarrel With Goal

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Landon, meanwhile, said he had no quarrel with the goal of the sheriff’s anti-drunk driver program but felt it has unacceptably inflated the inmate population. To illustrate conditions in the local detention facilities, Landon noted that a total of 469 inmates were sleeping on the floor throughout the county’s jail system Monday morning, with 55 of them in the downtown jail.

“There’s a balance that has to be struck here,” Landon said. If Duffy wants to book drunk drivers, he argued, they should be housed in a separate location where they will not exacerbate the cramped conditions in the downtown jail.

Landon also noted that the April court order allowing Duffy to violate the inmate population cap by jailing drunk drivers was entered before the sheriff announced his new holiday policy.

“My point was, things have changed since April and this might not be what the judge had in mind when granting him discretion to go over the 750 limit,” Landon said after the hearing.

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Although he rejected Landon’s argument, Malkus agreed that the county should aggressively pursue construction of a minimum detention facility that could house misdemeanor offenders like drunk drivers. The judge also advised both sides to monitor the number of arrests and said he would review the dispute a second time next week if requested to do so.

According to county statistics, the downtown jail population Monday morning was 819, a number that Albers said would dip by the end of the day as arraignments geared up after the long holiday weekend.

In Vista, a facility rated to house 246 inmates, there were 407 prisoners, and in El Cajon there were 440 prisoners in space rated to hold 120.


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