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DUI task force tactics drawing scrutiny


The knock came a little more than 48 hours after a judge told William Beall that he would not have to go to jail immediately — or maybe at all — for his 19th conviction for DUI.

When the 65-year-old Oakmont real estate agent opened his door, he was greeted by several Santa Rosa police and Sonoma County probation officers, who earlier that evening had fanned out as members of a DUI task force. They demanded to know whether Beall had any alcohol in the house.

Beall knew such a visit was possible, given the terms of probation outlined by visiting Alameda County Judge Julie Conger last Thursday during Beall's sentencing for his latest DUI offense. In exchange for his agreement to the conditions, Conger made the controversial decision to allow Beall to remain free until Jan. 21, when Beall was to learn whether he would serve that six-month sentence in jail or in a treatment facility.

But that was before the DUI task force made Beall a priority and knocked on his door Saturday night, leading ultimately to the Oakmont man being arrested again and taken back to jail, where he will remain at least until Monday on a no-bail hold while awaiting his fate on an alleged violation of probation for having booze in his home.

The task force's actions underscore the group's aggressive stance toward DUI enforcement — a stance that is drawing both praise and concern.

Besides probation searches and warrant checks, the task force, which officially is known as the Avoid the 13 campaign, conducts sobriety checkpoints, saturation patrols and undercover court stings to make sure people aren't driving on suspended or revoked licenses.

The group, which includes members of all 13 of the county's law enforcement agencies, is in the final year of a three-year, $659,000 grant funded by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and administered by the state Office of Traffic Safety.

[SUBHEAD_00]<IP0>Courthouse sting

<MC>On Tuesday, the task force conducted an undercover sting at the county courthouse in Santa Rosa to make sure people whose licenses were suspended or revoked did not drive away from their court appearances.

At least 10 people did, including one man whose license had been suspended after he got a DUI. He insisted that he gets rides from friends but that on Tuesday he couldn't find anyone to help.

"So I was, OK, I'll be careful," said the 32-year-old man, who agreed to talk on the condition that his name not be used because he is unemployed and looking for work.

Instead, the man is facing a longer suspension of his driver's license and more fines. Also, his truck was towed away on Tuesday.

Police credit such efforts for reducing injuries and crashes related to drinking and driving.

For example, state officials assert that the $14million that goes toward funding traffic safety checkpoints in California has resulted in a dramatic, 20 percent decline in "alcohol-impaired" deaths, from 1,298 in 2005 to 1,029 in 2008.

Petaluma Sgt. Ken Savano, who oversees the Avoid the 13 campaign in Sonoma County, said there hasn't been a single DUI fatality in the county in the past two years during periods of beefed-up enforcement, which mostly occur around holidays.

"It's working," Savano said. "Even if it saves one life, it's worth it."

<MC>Grant covers costs

<MC>He said the program is not a financial burden on local governments because the grant pays for police overtime and other costs, including $270,000 for a mobile command post that on Tuesday was buzzing with activity near the courthouse.

Savano said he will seek to extend the grant for another year in 2011.

Activists, however, decry sobriety checkpoints for mainly targeting unlicensed Latino drivers and not people who are driving drunk.

The Beall case points to another concern, and that is whether task force members are essentially taking matters into their own hands when they disagree with a judge's decision.

Savano acknowledged that the task force honed in on Beall after his sentencing made news on Friday, which by coincidence was the same day the group kicked off the annual holiday enforcement campaign.

"It was alarming that he (Beall) was released from jail on his own recognizance until Jan. 21 over the holiday season, when we know these problems are typically at their worst," Savano said.

Savano insisted that he's "not second-guessing the judge's decision," even as he went on to say that the task force was "not going to sit around to see if (DUI) No.20 was going to come around at the cost of someone else's life."

He also acknowledged an effort on the part of the task force to influence public opinion, including judges and prosecutors.

"There were days when they would take a DUI and plead it down to a &amp;&lsquo;wet reckless'," Savano said, referring to a lesser charge involving alcohol and driving. "Now the bench knows the public and law enforcement is watching."

<NO1>Savano said that at the end of the day, the probation search of Beall's house was simply a matter of protecting public safety. <NO><NO1>"We have to check on this guy," Savano said. "It's our duty."

<NO><MC>Attorney questions motives

<MC>Steven Weiss, Beall's attorney, sees it differently and questioned the task force's motivations.

"I'm not saying they (officers) don't have a right to be there, but they came there with the idea of getting him back in custody and not with the idea of being fair to him, and looking into the situation to see if there was a possible explanation for those unopened bottles," Weiss said.

He noted that officers gave Beall a preliminary alcohol test and that the results revealed that Beall had no trace of alcohol in his system.

According to police, Beall told the officers he had forgotten about an unopened bottle of wine in his refrigerator and that he had called a friend to come get it the next day.

Weiss said three unopened "bottles" of Irish creme and tequila that officers also reported finding were the tiny bottles of liquor normally available on airplanes.

Weiss said Beall couldn't just throw the booze in the trash as that also was subject to being searched. He said it would have looked especially bad had Beall emptied the bottles first.

"He can't drive. He lives alone. If he throws them on his neighbor's lawn, that's a problem. It's not as simple as putting it in the trash or pouring it down the sink," Weiss said.

He said Beall could face up to three years in prison depending on the outcome of the alleged probation violation.

Weiss said Conger factored in the fact that Beall's last DUI offense was eight years ago and that he is in poor health in making her decision last Thursday.

"The court had good, compassionate reasons for doing what it did. There are good reasons to believe that Mr. Beall did not present a danger to the community and that the best way to protect the community was a lengthy amount of supervision and monitoring, and that's in fact what the judge did," Weiss said.

<NO1>John Abrahams, the county's public defender, questioned whether the task force's focus on checkpoints and stings was an effective use of the group's resources, versus putting more officers on the street to look for drunken drivers.

"I understand why they are doing it. I'm against people driving drunk," Abrahams said. "But is it the most effective way to do it? I'm not sure. It gets inches of newsprint. Maybe that's the point."

<NO>But Lynn Darst of Mothers Against Drunk Driving on Tuesday applauded the task force's actions. She said she sent a note to Savano on Friday urging him to include Beall on a list of high-risk offenders the group uses as a reference guide.

"I don't know how they did it, or what prompted them to do it, but the fact they took Beall off our streets probably saved someone's life, because I strongly agree that Beall would have gotten into a vehicle and driven between now and Jan. 21," Darst said.

<MC>Judge's comment

<MC>Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Rene Chouteau,the acting presiding judge, on Tuesday did not seem inclined to view the task force's actions with Beall as a direct repudiation of Conger's decision, saying probation searches are "routine."

"Once the judge makes a decision, it's up to the Probation Department or the peace officers in that jurisdiction to enforce the terms of the probation," Chouteau said.

Chouteau declined specific comment on Beall's case or Conger's actions in it. But he said sentencing judges in general "appreciate law enforcement enforcing the terms of probation."

As for the efforts that are made to encourage judges to take a hard stance against DUI, Chouteau referenced an "evolution" in the past 30 years throughout society that has led to a strong stance against drinking and driving and, in Sonoma County, the creation of a DUI court and programs aimed at adolescents.