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More Cities Send Bills to Drunk Drivers for Cost of Arrest, Jailing

February 26, 1989|CHRIS WOODYARD | Times Staff Writer

Driving drunk is not just dangerous and illegal. In Long Beach and an increasing number of cities throughout the Southeast, it's getting more expensive for those who get caught.

For more than a year, Long Beach police have been billing drunk drivers up to $1,000 for the time it takes officers to arrest and put them into jail.

Many Southeast cities have adopted similar programs since the passage of a state law that took effect in 1986 permitting the charges. Most of those cities, however, charge only when police respond to an accident caused by a drunk driver.

Billing programs are in place in Huntington Park, Downey, South Gate, Compton and Whittier, all of which maintain their own police departments.

And within the last six months, Paramount, Lakewood, Bellflower, Norwalk, Santa Fe Springs and La Mirada have joined a similar program offered by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, sheriff's spokesman Sam Jones said.

The Cerritos City Council recently decided to add its city to the program. Besides the Southeast cities, Jones said West Hollywood is the only other municipality in the county served by the sheriff's department that bills drunk drivers.

Police officials in Signal Hill and Bell said last week that they are still studying the issue.

The state law allows cities to charge drunk drivers for the actual cost of the officers' time. In Long Beach, that works out to about $37 per officer per hour, up to a maximum of $1,000. South Gate police charge by the minute--61 cents per officer.

No Windfalls

Downey police officials say their department was one of the first local police agencies to take advantage of the law. Richard Solis, a traffic investigator, said the department went after old drunk driving cases as well as new ones. Even though the department started its program in the summer of 1986, officials mailed bills to drunk drivers who had been arrested dating back to the day the law took effect, Jan. 1 of 1986.

Although drunk driving arrests are common, none of the programs have resulted in a windfall of cash for police agencies.

Ed Hatzenbuhler, an administrator for Long Beach police, said his agency has billed $595,000 to drunk drivers from November, 1987, when his department initiated its program, through last Jan. 31.

But the drunk drivers have only paid about $156,000, he said. Those figure are far below the $800,000 in annual revenues that Police Chief Lawrence L. Binkley predicted when he asked for council approval of the program in 1987. Collections have picked up in the past few months, Hatzenbuhler said.

Downey's Solis said his department receives about a quarter of its total billings, resulting in revenue to the city of about $5,000 last year.

Other Southeast cities said they have received similarly nominal returns. The problem, officers say, is that many drunk drivers are indigent and cannot afford to pay the court fines resulting from the crime, much less the cost of their arrest.

But despite the lower-than-expected returns and the overhead of running the programs, police officials say they consider it worthwhile.

"I think it makes the people who are abusing pay instead of the average citizen," said South Gate Police Capt. Ken Powell. "I think you are going to see more and more of those things as the years go by."

Long Beach's Hatzenbuhler said collections have been strong enough to justify hiring a clerk to administer the program and to buy a personal computer to keep track of billings and payments from drunk drivers. The annual collections amount to about the salary and benefits of three police officers, he said.

Not Happy About Paying

"Most people are not very happy about it, but they generally pay," he said.

The charges only apply in Long Beach if a drunk driver is convicted. Charges for an average arrest or accident can run anywhere from $100 to the maximum of $1,000.

Some Southeast cities have rejected the program or are still studying it. Maywood Police Chief Ted Heidke said he knows the program has been successful in Downey, but he questioned whether enough drunk drivers arrested in his city would be able to afford to pay.

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