Drunk driving arrests in Ventura County have increased almost 14% this year since a new law went into effect lowering the legal blood alcohol level for driving under the influence.
The increase in the county is only slightly lower than a 16% increase reported statewide by the California Highway Patrol, but twice the 7% increase in Los Angeles County.
Since the new law which lowered the legal intoxication level from 0.10% blood-alcohol to 0.08% went into effect Jan. 1, arrests in Ventura County have increased by 13.85%, from 2,108 in the first nine months of 1989 to 2,400 in the same period of 1990.
So far, however, the increase in arrests has not resulted in a similar increase in prosecutions by the Ventura County district attorney's office.
The district attorney's office prosecuted 7,614 drunk driving cases last year and by Aug. 31 this year had filed 4,907 cases--roughly the same rate of prosecution, prosecutors said.
Law enforcement officials said the prosecution rate in Ventura County has remained stable partly because county prosecutors have always been tough on prosecuting drunk drivers.
According to Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury, drunk drivers also receive tougher sentences in Ventura County than in most other counties.
Bradbury, who as part of a general policy against plea bargaining refuses to let drunk drivers plead guilty to lesser charges, said he would like to see the legal intoxication limit dropped to 0.00%.
Even before the legal limit was dropped, state, county and local police officers in Ventura County sometimes arrested drivers with blood-alcohol levels as low as 0.07% and 0.06%.
In other counties such drivers can nearly always plead guilty to reduced charges or have their cases dismissed, law enforcement officials said. But here the police "know we'll prosecute those cases," Bradbury said.
The conviction rate is high. Of the 191 felony drunk driving cases filed in 1989, 118 have gone to court so far; 113 defendants pleaded guilty, three were convicted, two cases were dismissed and four cases were reduced to misdemeanors, Deputy Dist. Atty. Gregory Totten said. None were acquitted, said Totten, who oversees prosecution of felony drunk driving cases.
In the first nine months of 1990, 153 cases were filed; 88 of those charged pleaded guilty, two were convicted, one case was dismissed for lack of evidence and four were reduced to misdemeanors. None was acquitted, Totten said. The average prison term was 28.75 months and the average jail sentence was 346 days.
Sentences in Ventura County are generally stiffer than elsewhere in the state, officials said. Judges usually give 48-hour jail terms to first-time drunk driving convicts who by law are eligible for a 90-day license restriction instead.
Drunk driving convicts in Los Angeles County's Newhall Municipal Court usually receive the license restriction instead of jail time, said Pamela Davis Springer, the court's deputy district attorney-in-charge.
The tough atmosphere in Ventura County has kept the prosecution rate for drunk driving cases stable despite the new law, said county Deputy Dist. Atty. Edward F. Brodie, chief of the office's misdemeanor division.
Unlike other counties, Brodie said, drunk driving suspects here are not allowed to plead guilty to a reduced charge of reckless driving with alcohol, or "wet reckless," as it is known.
"Counties like L.A. would give you a wet reckless at 0.12%," he said. "But as far as we were concerned if the reports indicated driving impairment in the field sobriety tests even if the blood-alcohol was below 0.10%, we'd file the case. And we won a substantial number of those cases . . . . Juries in our county take a hard look at DUI drivers. And we also take a hard look at them."
Brodie said that 5% to 10% of drunk driving cases filed here last year were against drivers whose blood-alcohol content was below the then-legal intoxication level of 0.10%.
This year, about 2% of the cases in this county are being filed against drivers who test below the new level of 0.08%, he said.
"Under a 0.08% it becomes extremely difficult to prove impairment," Brodie said. "Below that level you're looking at a lot of people sitting at the two-beer level, depending on their weight . . . . We try to weed those cases out at the filing stage."
County criminalist Norman Fort said the knowledge that Ventura County has a tough approach to drunk driving probably keeps some drinkers off the road, but he said society is changing, too, and tolerance of drunk driving is declining steadily.
"If you're going to drink and drive you'd better do it in L.A. County; the odds of you being arrested there are much less," said Fort, who oversees blood-alcohol testing for the sheriff's crime lab. "And the odds of you being prosecuted here are much higher. We don't take plea bargains; we don't take wet reckless as a plea or dry reckless like they do in Los Angeles."
Assistant Public Defender Jean Farley said the atmosphere of intolerance may drive some people with defensible cases to plead guilty.
Farley worked as a deputy public defender from 1978 to 1986 in Orange County, where she said drunk driving charges often were reduced to wet reckless.
In Ventura County, she said, private attorneys often visit the public defender's office for insight on their clients' drunk driving cases.
When the lawyers learn the district attorney is dead serious about prosecuting even the low-level cases, they're shocked, Farley said.
The county's tough prosecution policies drew criticism from Mark S. Borrell, president of the Ventura County Criminal Defense Lawyers Assn.
"In Santa Barbara the district attorneys are interested in talking about cases, trying to work out cases and reach dispositions that seem appropriate," said Borrell, who defends drunk driving suspects here and in Santa Barbara County.
"Down here in Ventura, essentially, once a case has been filed nobody wants to talk about it any more, so it goes to trial . . . . We have a court system that's already overloaded, and forcing cases to trial only adds fuel to that fire."
Borrell also blamed Bradbury's stated no plea-bargaining policy for some of the court's backlog.
But Bradbury said tougher courtrooms mean safer streets.
"What we've tried to do for a long time is change this perception that you can drink and still be safe to drive," Bradbury said. "The scientific and medical data now indicates that you're an unsafe driver at 0.04%."
Felony Supervisor Totten said the office's hard-nosed attitude is meant to shake even the most irredeemable alcoholics' beliefs about drinking and driving.
"For a person to change his behavior and go dry, he has to hit bottom, and we like to think that one of the things that criminal prosecution does is raise the bottom for people," Totten said. "Where there are still that hard-core group that will continue to drink, regardless, a lot of people who do get sent to prison are going to change their behavior."