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City Council considers proposal that could raise cost of drunk driving

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SEPTEMBER 28, 2011

At its meeting Tuesday night, the Berkeley City Council considered a program that would require drunk driving offenders to pay the expenses associated with their crime.

The program — which was implemented in Oakley, Calif., earlier this year — aims to reduce the thousands of dollars in fees the city pays each time a drunk driver gets into an accident. The penalty would only apply in cases where the accident necessitates emergency response.

But concerns and questions from some council members prevented the passage of the proposal, which was instead forwarded to the city’s Peace and Justice Commission for review.

DUI payments result from a range of costs accumulated from the number of responding police officers, time spent in jail, towing charges, injuries and responding ambulances or fire trucks, according to Berkeley Police Department Officer Jessica Nabozny.

Councilmember Gordon Wozniak said the proposal is “opening a new can of worms” for the city’s judicial system, as people will undoubtedly question the accuracy of the fees and clog the courts with appeals.

“It creates a new punishment,” he said. “People who are convicted of the crime are not just penalized by a fine or jail time — there would be a new economic penalty.”

But Councilmember Kriss Worthington, who sponsored the resolution, said the proposal not only  benefit the city by reducing costs but would also discourage drunk driving.

“To some people, money talks, and that is what they listen to,” Worthington said. “If there is more of a penalty — like thousands of dollars — for DUIs, people are less likely to get them.”

He said the proposal only affects DUI cases when an accident or damages have occurred. He added that the driver’s fees could range from a couple hundred dollars to $12,000.

Oakley Finance Director Paul Abelson said that since the program’s adoption in February, about five people have been subject to paying emergency response charges. In all of the cases, the city has not yet received payment from any of the people charged with DUI despite numerous invoices and bills sent to their homes.

Moving forward, the city must calculate whether collecting payments for the crimes outweighs the fees that are needed to collect the money, said Berkeley City Attorney Zach Cowan.

“There are a lot of questions, like who is going to collect, and are they going to be doing that instead of patrolling the streets,” Cowan said. “Also, you obviously cannot collect money from people who do not have the money.”

Worthington said alternative methods of payment like community service may be an option for people with lower incomes.

The Peace and Justice Commission is set to send the proposal back to the council within the next six months.

“Everyone can agree drunk driving is bad and that the penalty should be high, no one argues that” Wozniak said. “But is it constitutional to charge (people) the costs for the crime?”

Contact Jasmine Mausner at 

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SEPTEMBER 28, 2011