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Getting Drunk Drivers to Ante Up Can Be Hard

Times Staff Writer

San Gabriel Valley cities are having mixed results in billing drivers who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol when they are involved in a traffic accident.

Police departments in La Verne, Covina and Azusa charge drivers for the officers’ time, from the moment they arrive at the scene of an accident to completion of an accident report.

Although La Verne and Covina police officers said they have had difficulty collecting the fees from many drivers, Azusa officers said drivers there have generally paid their bills promptly.

Despite the problems elsewhere, officials in Pomona, West Covina and Monterey Park are considering establishing similar fees.

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Although all police officers interviewed support such fees, most said it is often difficult to get drivers to pay their bills.

“Drunk driving is an irresponsible act to begin with,” said Sgt. Dave Miles of the Covina Police Department. “Alcoholics don’t respond very readily to the letters we send them.”

In Covina, the drivers have 30 days to pay the bill for police services. After 30 days, the Police Department sends a letter to Pomona Superior Court requesting that the bill be added to the offender’s probation requirements.

Since the city adopted the law 13 months ago, Miles said about 15 drunk drivers have been billed from $100 to $300. Fewer than 50% have paid without prodding from the court, he said.

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“We’re not doing this to make a profit,” Miles said. “It is an incentive to say, ‘Hey look, if you’re drinking and you’re in an accident, you’re going to pay for it.’ ”

Miles said he was uncertain whether the billing program works as a deterrent.

“The law is definitely a punishment, not a deterrent,” he said. “Most people who are drunk drivers can’t be deterred. An alcoholic is an alcoholic. The only thing the law does is enact a penalty. Whether or not it’s working to stop drunk drivers, I really don’t know.”

Police are allowed to collect the money under State Vehicle Code 22660, which was passed in 1985. The law allows cities to charge a driver who fails a sobriety test for emergency services. The bills are not sent out until the driver is charged with a violation.

Maximum Fee Is $1,000

Auto insurance does not cover the costs, forcing offenders to pay the bill themselves. The maximum amount the departments can charge is $1,000.

Because the cities fund the police departments, the money collected goes into a city’s general fund and is not earmarked for any special purpose.

In La Verne, drivers are charged for police time, fees for ambulances and services provided by paramedics and any necessary street maintenance. As in Covina, La Verne police officers’ hourly wages are broken down into minutes to determine the bill.

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La Verne averages about one drug or alcohol-related accident a month, said Lt. Ken Swank of the La Verne Police Department. The city has used the law to bill drivers for almost 3 years and the average bill is $190, he said.

Fewer than 50% of the drivers respond to their initial bills, Swank said. After reminder notices are sent, the matter goes to the city attorney, who contacts a collection agency. The agency may take up to 50% of the bill as a fee.

“I think it probably causes more of a financial burden than acts as a deterrent,” Swank said. “It would be more of a deterrent if it was advertised.”

Swank said the City Council decided to implement the law “because the police were spending more and more patrol time on drunk driving traffic collisions right around 2 a.m.

“Instead of having the taxpayers pay the bill, we are having the drunk drivers do it.”

In contrast to La Verne and Covina, Azusa has had little problem receiving payments since it started billing drivers in August.

“Payment is going really well,” said Cpl. Hal Linden of the Azusa Police Department.

He said that the 20 drivers who have been charged were billed an average of $120.

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Although the city charges drivers only for police services, Linden said that the $1,000 limit could easily be reached in an accident involving death or severe injuries.

Other Cities Study Program

Some neighboring cities are watching the cities that have adopted the program to see how it works. The Monterey Park and Pomona police departments are preparing staff reports for their city councils, and the West Covina Police Department has just completed its feasibility report.

West Covina’s police found that on average, cities that have adopted the law collected money from only a third of the drivers billed.

The study, which made no recommendation, also showed that a driver is charged between $200 and $400 per incident.

Although the need for the program is clear, with 176 alcohol- or drug-related accidents last year and 155 so far this year, Lt. Pat Kortan of the West Covina Police Department said he thought the City Council would probably not adopt the law unless it was economically feasible.

“If it costs us more to track the offenders or hire people to conduct the program, then it wouldn’t be profitable to do any more,” Kortan said.

“If it costs $15,000 and we’re bringing in $12,000, that’s not good arithmetic for anybody,” he said. “However, it would be nice if the citizenry didn’t have to pick up the bill.”


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