An attorney or prisoners who contend that conditions in San Diego County's overcrowded jails represent a violation of their constitutional rights on Monday criticized a plan by law enforcement agencies to lock up suspected drunk drivers arrested during the holiday season.
Under the plan, officially unveiled Monday at a press conference attended by Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp and a dozen local law enforcement officials, motorists accused of excessive imbibing will be booked into jail and required to post $1,250 bail, a process likely to keep them behind bars for as long as 18 hours.
The program--designed to deter tipsy partyers from climbing behind the wheel--is a marked departure from the county's usual quick-release method of turning suspected drunk drivers over to a sober, responsible party once they have completed their alcohol tests.
'Make Problems Worse'
Alex Landon, who represents inmates in two jail-crowding lawsuits filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, said the new strategy threatens to further overburden the county's already jam-packed jails, exacerbating conditions he described as "appalling."
"The conditions in the (booking area of the downtown jail) are extremely bad already," Landon said. "There are no windows, very few places for people to sit. Adding all these extra people to an already overstressed system is only going to make the problems worse."
Moreover, Landon expressed concern that the drunk driver jailings would violate a court-imposed cap of 750 at the downtown County Jail. He said he was disturbed that Sheriff John Duffy, a defendant in the jail-crowding lawsuits, had failed to seek court permission to expand the allowable number of inmates in order to house the guilty motorists.
"There are processes for dealing with this and I'm surprised that no one bothered to set a hearing to seek the court's permission if they perceived this as an emergency situation," Landon said. "I would hope there is some action taken to address this in a responsible way."
'We'll Find Room'
In an interview Monday, Duffy conceded that "I'm always in violation of the court order and I'm sure I will be" throughout the newly created program. The sheriff said he had no specific plans for accommodating the extra bodies but argued that "keeping those people off the road is our priority at this time of year and we'll find room for them somewhere."
Duffy also maintained that Superior Court Judge James A. Malkus, who has presided over continuing hearings in the suit that prompted the 750-inmate cap on the downtown jail, allows for violation of the population ceiling if necessary to accommodate "violent criminals."
Duffy added: "Personally, I consider drunk drivers violent criminals."
Landon acknowledged that Malkus had defined categories of "particularly dangerous" offenders who could be housed in violation of the court cap during critical periods. But the attorney said the list of offenses was very limited and that drunk driving was not on it. Judge Malkus could not be reached for comment.
Duffy said there was no way to estimate the number of people who may be arrested and booked on suspicion of drunk driving in the coming days. Last year, the California Highway Patrol arrested 71 people on suspicion of drunk driving between 8 p.m. New Year's Eve and 6 a.m. New Year's Day, while San Diego police arrested 39 suspected drunk drivers during the same period.
In any event, Sheriff's Department statistics leave little doubt that arrests under the holiday program will violate the cap at the downtown facility. Lt. Alan Fulmer, a Sheriff's Department spokesman, said that as of Monday morning, the downtown jail population was 875--about 19% over the facility's rated capacity.
The County Jail in Vista is another facility where drunk drivers will be booked. Fulmer said it had 476 inmates Monday, well over its capacity of 246. The South Bay jail was 238% over capacity, with 650 inmates, and the El Cajon jail had 317 inmates in a facility rated to hold 120. The Las Colinas County Jail for Women in Santee--another that will receive suspected drunk drivers--and the county's facility in Descanso were under capacity Monday.
The county's crowded jail conditions first became a legal issue in 1977 when the ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of five inmates seeking population limits on the teeming central facility downtown. In 1980, then-San Diego County Superior Court Judge James Focht imposed the 750-inmate cap, and since then, county officials have attempted a variety of measures to adhere to the order.
In one such effort, prisoners have been shuttled to the outlying jails. But in recent years, those facilities have in turn felt the population crunch, and in August, the ACLU filed a second suit seeking to extend inmate limits throughout the county's jail system.