This New Year’s Eve, several Orange County cities want drinking drivers to know they are risking more than the fines and jail time that could result from being caught in sobriety checkpoints. If they wind up causing an accident, they are going to pay for it.
Under state law, cities now may bill drunk drivers who are involved in accidents up to $1,000 for costs incurred in sending people and vehicles to the scene of an emergency.
“We made it sort of a user fee for drunk drivers,” said Dave Gilliard, senior consultant for state Sen. Edward R. Royce (R-Anaheim), author of the law.
On Friday, the law will become even tougher, as an amendment takes effect allowing judges to make payment of emergency-response expenses a condition of probation for those convicted of drunk driving.
About half of the cities in Orange County now send out bills immediately after an accident to those who police say were responsible through negligence caused by drugs or alcohol, Gilliard estimated.
Three Cities Did Study
Suspects are billed regardless of whether they are convicted, because plea bargaining sometimes distorts the facts, said Glen Everroad, licensing supervisor for the City of Newport Beach.
Gilliard explained the origin of the state legislation this way: “It started out in Orange County with the cities of Orange, Garden Grove and Anaheim, who did a study and found an increasing amount of their budget was being spent on drunk driving and arrests. It was going up every year.” In 1984, for example, there were 1,000 collisions in those cities attributed to drunk driving.
Cities that now bill drunk driving suspects for emergency-response expenses include Irvine, Newport Beach, Orange, Tustin, Westminster, Cypress, Buena Park, La Habra, Fountain Valley, Huntington Beach, La Palma, San Clemente, Laguna Beach and Anaheim. The average fee runs from $100 to $800, city officials said. The average cost of sending out an emergency response team is $700, according to Gilliard.
After accidents in unincorporated areas, the Orange County Fire Department sends out bills to drunk-driving suspects for the use of their fire trucks and paramedics’ time.
The California Highway Patrol has been testing an emergency-response billing program in 18 field offices outside Orange County and probably will implement a statewide program soon, a CHP public affairs officer said.
Some cities have taken the law even further than those in Orange County. San Jose police officers have interpreted the law to mean that they can bill a drunk-driving suspect for an arrest even if there is no accident.
Long Beach also has interpreted the law to mean it can bill suspects for their own arrests, although those who can show that they were not convicted are off the hook.
Even if it doesn’t deter drunk drivers, the law takes “some of the burden that drunk drivers place on the rest of citizens and places it where it should be,” said Sgt. Richard Zschoche, traffic bureau commander for the Anaheim Police Department.
Anaheim has been sending suspects bills since Jan. 1, 1986, when the law took effect in its original form, with a billing limit of $500. This year alone, from January to October, the city billed $63,000 to suspects and collected $37,000.
The City of Orange has received only $7,532 of the $36,000 it has billed this year. Some people are paying their bills in monthly installments, an official said.
Those who don’t pay are either turned over to collection agencies or taken to small claims court, officials said.
The money recovered under the law is really “only a fraction” of what accidents cost, said Lt. John Schaefer of the Cypress Police Department.
“Last night we had a drunk-driving collision where an innocent man lost a leg,” he said Wednesday. “We may be able to get $1,000 out of the accident, but we’ll never be able to get that man’s leg back.”
Times staff writers Danny Sullivan and Jim Carlton contributed to this article.
NEW YEAR’S EVE DRUNK WATCH
Cities with sobriety checkpoints.
Westminster Cities with special roving police units seeking drunk drivers: