A Truly Awful Scheme

Once in a while, someone comes up with a truly awful idea. That seems to be what has happened in San Jose, where the city is now billing suspected drunk drivers for the costs of their arrests--about $150 each--regardless of whether they are ultimately convicted. We understand that financially strapped cities need new revenue sources, but this program strikes us as a distortion of state law and probably unconstitutional to boot.

Hasn't the city attorney of San Jose ever heard of the presumption of innocence? The Fifth and Sixth Amendments make it clear that no one can be punished for a crime without due process and a public trial. But San Jose is assessing what is essentially a fine against people who have not yet gone to court, who have had no opportunity to refute the testimony of the arresting officer. Calling it something other than a fine does not disguise the fact that those people billed by San Jose are being punished for allegedly committing a crime.

San Jose's scheme also turns on its head a 1985 law that made Californians driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs liable for up to $1,000 if their negligence results in an "emergency response" from law enforcement agencies. The California Highway Patrol and most California cities have read that statute to mean that a drunk driver who causes an accident can be billed for police, firefighter and paramedic time once he is convicted--which squares with the measure's original intent, according to state Sen. Edward R. Royce (R-Anaheim), its author. But in San Jose, the meter starts running as soon as the police officer turns on his siren, whether or not there is an accident or a conviction. A court challenge to San Jose's practice would seem in order, but who is likely to bankroll an expensive lawsuit to avoid paying a $150 fine?

We would waste no sympathy on drunk drivers, who kill nearly 25,000 people every year across the United States. Such offenders ought to be vigorously prosecuted and, if convicted, stripped of their licenses, fined, even sent to jail for using their vehicles as deadly weapons against the innocent. But the essential ingredient before the state throws the book at them--or sends them a bill for $150--ought to be a conviction in a court of law.

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