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Task Force Out for ‘Amateur Drinkers Night’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Twenty minutes into the annual New Year’s Eve anti-drunk-driving patrol, Costa Mesa Police Officers Jeff McCann and Mike Howard pulled out the shark.

As Howard taped the cardboard shark to the dash, they automatically began the ominous “Jaws” chant. Doo-doo-doo-doo. Impaired drivers beware.

Not only were Howard and McCann looking for weavers and reckless drivers, but so were eight other ground patrols, a police helicopter, two transport vans and assorted other breath analyzers and record takers--all in an unusually aggressive effort to prevent alcohol-related accidents Monday night, the night Howard calls “amateur drinkers’ night.”

For the third year in a row, the city has called on its officers to join the special New Year’s Eve DUI Task Force--a beefed-up version of its one full-time unit devoted to catching drunk drivers.

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In one three-month period, two officers produced 430 arrests, with more than a 90% conviction rate.

Both the full-time unit and the special New Year’s task force are credited with preventing accidents and injury collisions, Lt. Al Kent said. The department will add another full-time unit next year.

Last New Year’s Eve, the officers made 46 arrests. Monday, with increased ground and support staff, they anticipated between 50 and 60 arrests during the 7:30 p.m. to 3:30 a.m. patrol. The arrests equal those produced at sobriety checkpoints, Kent said.

Smashed cars that had been involved in alcohol-related accidents were also displayed alongside heavily traveled roads throughout town.

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Like the other units, McCann and Howard focused their attack on city boulevards where the bars are located and that carry through-traffic--Newport and Harbor boulevards and Placentia Avenue.

A car pulls too sharply away from a bar. Doo-doo-doo-doo. But the driver does not look impaired. McCann and Howard pull over a driver whose lights are too bright, another whose lights don’t work.

On New Year’s, they issue warnings only, not time-consuming citations that would take them away from their goal--arresting drunk drivers.

In less than an hour, they stop half a dozen drivers, none of whom are drunk. They pass another half-dozen fellow officers, some of whom are giving drivers sobriety tests.

But it is early yet. They know most of the arrests will come at midnight or later. About half of the “designated drivers” they stop will probably be impaired themselves, said McCann, who has received a “century pin” for having made 100 drunk-driving arrests.

After midnight, a new state law would be in effect. Convicted drunk drivers will be sentenced to an additional 30 days in jail if they exceed the speed limit on surface streets by 20 m.p.h. or 30 m.p.h. on freeways.

The officers will have their own New Year’s party next week to make up for the celebrations they missed Monday, Kent said. But over the past five years, their own drinking habits have changed, he said.

“I drink a lot differently and so do a lot of the officers,” he said.

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“It’s just not worth it,” McCann added.


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