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Walking the Line : Michael Bradbury Is Out to Get Drinking Drivers, but Critics Say He's Going Too Far

September 08, 1988|JESSE KATZ | Times Staff Writer

Get caught behind the wheel after a few drinks in Ventura County and there's a good chance you'll find yourself in court charged with the misdemeanor of driving under the influence.

Do the same in many other parts of California and you'll probably be offered a reduced charge or even go free.

The difference lies in the fact that Ventura County Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury prides himself on prosecuting any driver he considers unsafe, even those who would be slapped with only a traffic ticket in other counties.

"People who drink and drive virtually any amount of alcohol are the random killers in our society today," said Bradbury, who expects to file cases against more than 8,000 such motorists this year. "If you have even two drinks, the chances are you're a danger on the highway."

But numerous critics are accusing Bradbury of throwing discretion out the window. While they say they detest drunk driving, they argue that innocent people are getting snared at levels of impairment so minute as to be meaningless.

"He's forgotten his ethical duty," said Bryant A. Villagran, the deputy public defender who oversees misdemeanor cases. "He's prosecuting people who were never a danger."

Some, including criminal defense attorneys and even a few former prosecutors who worked with Bradbury, say his unwillingness to compromise on such marginal cases needlessly puts defendants through wrenching and expensive court trials.

Skewed Reading Possible

Others say Bradbury's concept of what constitutes impairment is based on often inaccurate chemical tests and subjective field sobriety tests, both of which, they say, can give a skewed view of a defendant's condition.

While it is not uncommon for defense attorneys to joust with prosecutors, many critics contend that Bradbury's quest to get drinking drivers off the road is pushing the limits of state law, which does not forbid a person to drive after drinking.

"You have people being prosecuted who don't think they're breaking the law . . . people who make sure they've only had a couple drinks," said Ventura attorney William L. Hinkle, a prosecutor under Bradbury until 1987.

"It's a disagreeable situation when you have law-abiding citizens breaking the law," he said.

George C. Eskin, a Ventura attorney who served as assistant district attorney from 1968 to 1971, agrees.

"There are individuals, human beings, who are being subjected to criminal prosecution when their cases ought to be disposed of otherwise," he said. "We abhor drunk driving, but we also abhor misuse of the criminal justice system."

Critics point to the increasing number of driving-under-the-influence cases in which the defendant's blood-alcohol level is below 0.10%--the level at which state law presumes a person is too impaired to drive safely.

Under the California Vehicle Code, prosecutors can charge people who have blood-alcohol levels below 0.10% if they think that there is other evidence of impairment, such as an erratic driving pattern or outward signs of intoxication.

According to the state Department of Motor Vehicles, the average person weighing between 150 and 170 pounds could begin to reach dangerous levels after just one drink. It would take about three drinks to reach 0.10%.

In many California counties, though, prosecutors say they are reluctant to try drivers with blood-alcohol readings of less than 0.10% unless an accident occurs or particularly hazardous driving is observed. Otherwise, they say, it can be a fruitless and time-consuming task trying to convince jurors that a driver with a small amount of alcohol in his blood was seriously impaired.

"The average blood-alcohol for the people we're prosecuting is about 0.17%," said Santa Barbara County Assistant Dist. Atty. Patrick J. McKinley. "We're probably not going to fool around and worry too much about someone driving with a 0.07%."

Other prosecutors expressed similar views. "If the case were 0.08%, generally, we would not file," said Ellen A. Sarmiento, a Los Angeles deputy city attorney.

'More Realistic Approach'

Modoc County Assistant Dist. Atty. David A. Mason added: "There would have to be really, really bad driving or a high degree of impairment. . . . Usually, we take a more realistic approach."

But in Ventura County, a driver who has had just a couple of drinks can expect the full weight of the law, which, for the first offense, usually includes a $1,200 fine, three years probation, alcohol education classes and a three-month license restriction.

Unlike other prosecutors, who routinely offer defendants the reduced charge of alcohol-related reckless driving, Bradbury refuses to plea-bargain. As a result, driving-under-the-influence cases are three times more likely to reach juries in Ventura County than in Los Angeles County.

"Ventura is a classic example of a good prosecutor's office that is very aggressive and very highly trained," said Gary S. Mullen, executive director of the California District Attorneys Assn. "They're very, very tough. . . . They'll get you."

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