LAGUNA NIGUEL — Tranquilino Flores must have considered himself lucky when he walked out of South Orange County Municipal Court here three weeks ago.
He had just received his fourth drunk driving conviction in six years and was facing up to three years in state prison. After repeatedly promising not to drive for four years, and Flores got off with a six-month jail sentence.
But less than 15 minutes later, a bailiff arrested Flores as he drove out of the courthouse parking lot in his white pickup truck. The Santa Ana man was brought back to court in handcuffs and sentenced to a year in jail that same day by Municipal Judge Pam Iles.
Officials say what happened to Flores is not uncommon. During the last 18 months, an estimated 100 drivers have been arrested in the court's parking lot mere minutes after their licenses were suspended, their arrests part of a cat-and-mouse game in which bailiffs hide behind bushes and crouch behind parked cars and buildings to see if suspended drivers defy court orders not to get behind the wheel.
Officials of the state Department of Motor Vehicles say the program in South County Municipal Court is probably the only systematic law enforcement effort in California to catch motorists who drive with suspended licenses.
At least 2%, or 400,000, of the state's 20 million motorists drive with suspended licenses, DMV spokesman Bill Gengler said.
"It's a huge problem. especially when there are such large numbers of them out there," Gengler said. "We are not aware of any other jurisdiction that is apprehending these people."
In Orange County alone, an estimated 40,000 motorists drive each day with suspended licenses, Gengler said.
Judges and administrative staff believe the figures are much higher.
For example, in South Orange County Municipal Court, 3,339 of the 14,524 criminal cases--23% of the total--that have been filed within the last 10 months involved 14601s, the legal code for people charged with driving while their licenses have been suspended for drunk driving, negligent driving or driving without insurance.
"I'm astounded at the number of people in South County who are caught driving without valid licenses," said South County Municipal Judge Ronald P. Kireber, who recently transferred from North County Court in Fullerton.
Kireber and other judges say it is not difficult to predict if defendants will disobey their orders.
"These people are not being trapped," Kireber said. "These are people who because of their records are repeatedly ordered not to drive, but you know they're going to drive anyway when they got their car keys bulging out of their pockets."
Judge Iles, who over the last 18 months has stiffened the sentences of dozens of drivers caught driving with suspended licenses, said that she "can tell when they're going to defy you because after you tell them not to drive, they look straight at you and there's this four-second pause. Then they say, "Oh, oh, ...OK!" And then you know they drove to court with their suspended license."
Judges say they often spend up to five minutes lecturing defendants not to drive. One of the more memorable cases in South County Municipal Court involved a defendant remembered only as John, whose license was revoked because he was caught driving drunk.
For five minutes, Iles said, she urged him not to drive. Then she pointed to Deputy Marshal Karen Tantalo and said: "You see that bailiff there with the gun and the badge? Well, yesterday I told a man not to drive and he did. And she pulled him through the [door] window."
" 'No, no, no, your honor,' " Iles quoted the young defendant as saying. " 'I wouldn't drive.' "
A few minutes later Tantalo arrested the man as he attempted to drive away from the parking lot.
Bailiffs say they began following suspended drivers when they noticed that many people charged with 14601s were repeat offenders. Iles said bailiffs here are able to follow and arrest violators because the South County court facility, unlike others in the county, is somewhat compact.
The targets are randomly selected. But Tantalo and Deputy Marshal Tim Hoffman say they are more likely to follow defendants who were given strong admonitions against driving by the judges.
"It's amazing how human nature surprises you," Hoffman said. The defendants "fly in the face of common sense."
The bailiffs call the assignments "fishing expeditions," which makes Tantalo the department's top angler. Tantalo, 33, has caught at least 50 drivers with suspended licenses since she began tracking them outside. Tantalo swears that she knows every hiding spot on the courthouse grounds.
"She's a very special deputy," Iles said. "She's the only marshal who can look like a tree."
Tantalo said the majority of drivers she catches are in their early 20s to mid -30s and have been brought to court for driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.