In what may be the strongest weapon yet in the state's growing arsenal against drunk drivers, suspects will lose their licenses on the spot under a new law that took effect at 12:01 this morning.
The law allows officers to confiscate the licenses of drivers arrested on suspicion of drunk driving if their blood-alcohol level is 0.10% or higher, authorities said.
The bill "will bring swift and certain penalties for those who choose to drink and drive," said state Sen. John Seymour (R-Anaheim), co-author of the bill with Sen. Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward).
The new measure reinforces a stiffer drunk-driving law enacted this year. Legislation has been introduced that would reduce the confiscation measure's standard to a 0.08% blood-alcohol level, to make it conform with the state's new legal standard for drunkenness that became law Jan. 1.
County politicians, police and groups fighting for a crackdown on drunk driving hailed the confiscation law as an effective way to take such drivers off the roads, but some civil rights lawyers question its legality.
The American Civil Liberties Union said its attorneys are still reviewing the new penalties. And David Manella, a partner in the law firm of Jacoby & Myers, predicted that the new law will create "chaos" in the courts and at the Department of Motor Vehicles.
"A driver will have to fight for his or her license at the DMV level, while at the same time questions about his civil liberties could be contested in another court," Manella said. "It will take some time before the entire question of jurisdiction is sorted out."
Under the new law, those arrested on suspicion of drunk driving will have their license confiscated and receive a 45-day temporary driver's permit from police. They then have 10 days to appeal the license suspension to the DMV.
If the DMV upholds the suspension, drivers can request a court review. If the suspension still stands, first-time offenders will lose their license for at least four months. Those with previous convictions for driving under the influence will lose their license for up to two years.
In addition, drivers who refuse to undergo a blood-alcohol test at the time of arrest will automatically lose their licenses for at least six months, and up to two years if they have had previous convictions, officials said.
The law is swift and unyielding. For example, violators will not be issued restrictive licenses that would allow them to drive to and from work--a considerable penalty for those who have to commute great distances.
Only commercial drivers, whose livelihood depends on their having a license, will be able to apply for a restricted license, so long as the arrest is their first offense and they were not in a commercial vehicle at the time, said Bill Gengler, a DMV spokesman in Sacramento.
"We're dealing with something that's very serious," Gengler said.
Last year there were 336,059 arrests statewide for driving under the influence, according to the California Highway Patrol. There were also 90,287 DUI-related license suspensions and revocations--21,466 because the drivers refused to submit to a blood-alcohol test.
"Law enforcement's role in (the new law) is really quite simple," CHP Commissioner Maury Hannigan said. "We stop you, we test you, we arrest you, we test you again, and we take your license.
"This new law combines with the 0.08 law and the U.S. Supreme Court's recent affirmation of sobriety checkpoints to give us several potent tools in the campaign to protect the motoring public," Hannigan said.
California is the 28th state to enact a stiff driver's license suspension law. Law enforcement officials said alcohol-related fatal collisions dropped dramatically in nearly all of the 27 other states with similar laws.
California's DMV will spend $4.3 million a year to handle the additional processing and administrative costs of the new law, officials said. A toll-free DMV phone line has been set up to answer public queries about the new law. The number is (800) 765-3333.
In Orange County, law enforcement officials, for the most part, said they welcome the new law.
The CHP's Santa Ana office released a statement last week saying that it plans to use the law to make driver's licenses "an endangered species" for drunk drivers. Last year, CHP officers in the Santa Ana office arrested 3,049 suspected drunk drivers.
CHP officials estimate that more than 300,000 California drivers a year will lose their licenses because of the new law.
"After July 1, virtually all of those arrested for DUI will have their license suspended," said CHP Capt. Chuck Lynd, commander of the Santa Ana office. "We believe this additional tool in our fighting arsenal will enhance our main goal, which is to improve the safety on California's highways."
In Newport Beach, which has had an increase in alcohol-related driving offenses, Lt. Tim Newman said officers are prepared to "take full advantage" of the new penalties.
"It's another reason for a (drunk driver) to think about having a designated driver," Newman said. "The important thing is that the new law will keep people from getting hurt."
Sgt. Tom Winter of Costa Mesa Police Department, which last year had the highest drunk-driving arrest rate in Orange County, hailed the new law as "another excellent step . . . in combating driving under the influence."
"We are going to be using it on most or all of our DUI arrests," Winter said.
Santa Ana Police Lt. Robert Helton, however, pointed out that the new law will create more paper work for busy street officers: "There's going to be increased work and cost for us without (any financial) return for us."
Gengler of the DMV said the new law was not meant to generate revenue for law enforcement agencies.
"The bottom line is that this is a value to the local community, and we have seen in 27 states that this program has significantly reduced the number of alcohol-related traffic fatalities," Gengler said.
"I think that if law enforcement agencies are going to be concerned about filling out a couple of extra forms, we have to look at it more importantly: Is it going to save lives?"
DRUNK DRIVING ARRESTS
The number of adults and juveniles arrested in Orange County on suspicion of drunk driving.
Source: office of the attorney general/bureau of criminal statistics and special services.