On drunk patrol: Pismo Beach has highest rate of drunken-driving arrests in county

On holiday weekends, over spring break and throughout the summer, Pismo Beach’s population sometimes triples as tourists flock to the beach town.

As they fill hotel rooms and vacation rentals, the visitors stuff Pismo Beach’s coffers with hotel tax and sales tax revenue.

But some vacationers also contribute to the city’s revenue in another way: fines paid for drunken-driving arrests.

A Tribune review of drunken-driving arrests during a nearly three-year period shows that Pismo Beach has the highest rate of DUI arrests in the county, at 76 per 1,000 people.

The data also show that 40 percent of those arrested in Pismo Beach on suspicion of driving under the influence live outside San Luis Obispo County.

The numbers also show that Pismo Beach has nearly as many DUI arrests as several San Luis Obispo County cities double its size, including nearby Arroyo Grande, and 33 fewer arrests than Atascadero, which is more than triple its size.

It’s unclear exactly why Pismo Beach has more arrests than some of its neighboring cities, but one possibility is the city’s meal ticket: tourism.

Pismo Beach’s population is 7,655, but on certain weekends and holidays, such as the Fourth of July, more than 30,000 people, and some say as many as 70,000, flood the city for car shows and other events.

Also, those coming to work in the city’s hotels, restaurants and other services push the Police Department’s daily “service population” to about 16,000 people, said Pismo Beach police Cmdr. Jake Miller, who heads patrol operations.

“It just happens that during the summer, the population is quadrupled with folks from around the state,” Miller said. “We certainly don’t want (out-of-town residents) to think at all that we’re targeting them. We treat the violation of driving under the influence the same no matter where you’re from.”

Of the 586 people arrested on suspicion of driving drunk over a 32-month period, about 14 percent lived in the Central Valley, including Fresno, Bakersfield, Visalia and Clovis.

Of the locals arrested, about 16 percent lived in Pismo Beach, nearly 13 percent in Grover Beach, 10 percent in Santa Maria and 9 percent in Arroyo Grande.

The revenue from DUI fines makes up only a small percentage of Pismo Beach’s overall budget. The city’s largest source of revenue is the transient occupancy tax, or bed tax, paid by those who stay in the city’s motels, vacation rentals and RV parks. The city expects to bring in about $6 million from the tax this year.

Encouraged not to drink

In previous years, police have partnered with local bars and restaurants to try to reduce drunken driving by offering designated drivers free nonalcoholic beverages. However, it’s unknown how much those efforts reduced the number of people who drive under the influence.

During this April’s Taste of Pismo event, which will feature food from 20 local restaurants and wine from about 35 wineries, designated drivers will be charged only half the admission price, said Peter Candela of the Pismo Beach Chamber of Commerce.

San Luis Obispo Superior Court officials, who distribute the revenue to the cities, aren’t able to break down the exact amount of money Pismo Beach receives from DUI fines.

But in the 2008-09 fiscal year, the city received $86,247 in motor vehicle fines, which could include speeding tickets, seat belt and cellphone violations and DUI arrests. That revenue dropped to $57,135 in the 2010-11 fiscal year.

Still, among San Luis Obispo County cities, only Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo brought in more revenue for motor vehicle fines for those years.

“We often run into people who are coming to the city (who) almost feel like, ‘We’re in Pismo, so there are no rules,’ ” said Officer Bill Garrett, who has been recognized four times by Mothers Against Drunk Driving for making the most DUI arrests in the city.

Garrett believes Pismo Beach’s arrest numbers and higher revenue could stem from a combination of factors, including its tourist population and some officers’ increased efforts to get drunken drivers off city streets.

DUI enforcement appealed to Garrett, who has since completed additional training in field sobriety testing.

“I often think, ‘Bill, why are you so interested in this?’ ” he said, chuckling. “For whatever reason, this is something I found to be interesting, (and) I’m good at it. I feel good about protecting the community.”

Finding drunken drivers

Pismo Beach officers are more likely to make DUI arrests on certain holidays and weekends.

However, they occasionally make arrests on Wednesday nights, when some residents who live in southern San Luis Obispo County or northern Santa Barbara County may head up to The Graduate nightclub in San Luis Obispo for what’s billed as “College Hump Night.”

Those residents have been known to take a shortcut home down Highway 227 and through Pismo Beach to get to Highway 101, Garrett said.

On Wednesday night, Officer Adrian Souza steered his patrol vehicle around downtown streets and parked near Price Canyon Road and Price Street.

Souza, who has been with the department for five years, also found he has a knack for spotting intoxicated drivers.

He has also completed additional training and was honored by MADD in 2010 for making 25 DUI arrests. In 2011, he made 33 arrests.

Wednesday night, however, was relatively slow.

About 11:25 p.m., Souza and other officers stopped to talk to a man found asleep in his truck at Chumash Park. A Breathalyzer test showed him to be over the legal limit, and Souza warned him to stay put for at least another hour before driving.

“You weren’t driving, so you’re not in trouble,” he told the man, “but don’t say we didn’t warn you. We know where you’re at.”

A little later in the evening, Sgt. Shawn Singleton spotted a white SUV heading south on Highway 1. The vehicle was driving in the bike lane — a sign that the driver may have been intoxicated.

Singleton pulled the vehicle over in Oceano and waited for Souza to arrive and administer a field sobriety test.

The driver, a Visalia resident heading to the beach, followed a series of tests, and then blew into the Breathalyzer before being placed under arrest and transported to San Luis Obispo County Jail.

The officers, meanwhile, filled out numerous forms.

“Some think they’re too much paperwork,” Souza said of DUI arrests. “But I like getting someone off the street.”

DUI fine split among many agencies

Anyone arrested in Pismo Beach for drunken driving faces some hefty costs, which could include towing charges, DUI classes, attorney fees and an increase in their vehicle insurance.

They’ll also face a $2,344 fine, of which Pismo Beach gets a cut. But the city’s share is only about $351, or 15 percent. The rest of the money is distributed to other programs and state funds, said Michelle Frazier, court fiscal director for San Luis Obispo Superior Court.

A state penalty assessment fund gets $510 to help pay for training programs for public officers, including peace officers, correctional officers, local prosecutors and public defenders.

The county’s penalty assessment fund receives $357, which is then divided to fund local courthouse and jail facilities. About $170 of the fine is sent to the state to fund trial court operations, and $255 goes to a state courthouse construction fund.

An additional $140 goes to restitution funds, with some of the money prioritized for victims of alcohol-related traffic offenses. About $100 goes to lab fees, including a blood test. Education programs, including a county DUI program, collectively receive about $100. The rest of the fine goes to local and state programs to fund DNA testing and local emergency medical services.

Frazier noted revenues have declined in the past few years, which could indicate that fewer citations are being issued. The economy may also have led some to settle their fines through jail time or community work service, or not pay them as quickly.

How local cities’ DUI arrests compare

The Tribune reviewed the number of drunken-driving arrests in the county’s seven cities from January 2008 through August 2011. The numbers of arrests made by the California Highway Patrol and the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office are not included.

San Luis Obispo Superior Court distributes to each city a portion of fines for motor vehicle violations, such as DUI and speeding. Not all fines are paid in cash; some people choose to perform community service or serve jail time.

City Number of DUI arrests Population Motor vehicle fines collected in fiscal 2008-11
Arroyo Grande 610 17,252 $143,737
Atascadero 619* 28,310 $208,633
Grover Beach 235 13,156 $133,122
Morro Bay 341** 10,234 $88,550
Paso Robles 753 29,793 $320,807
Pismo Beach 586 7,655 $209,499
San Luis Obispo 969 45,119 $377,912
* Arrest information provided by Atascadero is through July 31, 2011.

** Arrest information provided by Morro Bay is through July 1, 2011.

Reach Cynthia Lambert at 781-7929. Stay updated by following @SouthCountyBeat on Twitter.