The number of DUI arrests in San Mateo County was down 30 percent last year. That doesn’t mean the danger on local roads is any less evident.
A Felton woman faces felony prosecution as a suspected drunken driver after a fatal crash south of Half Moon Bay man last month. While she awaits her day in court, others who have been charged with DUI initially have been sent to sobering centers instead of jail, highlighting the differing approaches law enforcement takes to prosecuting the crime.
Representatives of the California Highway Patrol and San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office, the two agencies able to make DUI arrests on the Coastside, said that where drunken drivers go after an arrest relies on a host of factors, including whether there were injuries and the driver’s behavior around officers.
If drunken driving leads to a collision that injures another person, the driver will likely be charged with a felony. Officer Pablo Rios, public information officer for the California Highway Patrol, said someone charged with a felony DUI will likely be booked into county jail and will have to see a magistrate or post bail to be released.
In most cities and counties, jail is the default for people charged with a felony or misdemeanor DUI. But in San Mateo County, there is an alternative to jail for misdemeanor crimes when there is no injury: the 24-hour First Chance sobering station in Burlingame.
First Chance, a nonprofit that receives county funding, is a sobering station with two dorms to hold four women and nine men. The time a person spends at First Chance is calculated using their blood alcohol content. The equation is simple: their blood alcohol content — minus the decimal point — in hours divided by 2. For example, someone with a BAC of 0.20 spends 10 hours at the station.
“For some people, going to jail can be very traumatic, especially for someone who has never been there before,” said Michael McCormick, alcohol and drug counselor at First Chance.
McCormick said a sobering station is a good alternative to jail. But whether someone is brought to First Chance or the jail is left to the discretion of the officer responding to a drunken driver.
“If someone as a whole is cooperative and able to stand on their own, they are a good candidate for First Chance,” said Rosemerry Blankswade, public information officer for the county Sheriff’s Office. “If someone is aggressive, uncooperative or so drunk they cannot stand on their own, that’s when we book them into jail.”
The jail can also function as a place to sober up. But people are brought to the jail if officers find them uncooperative, if they do not have adequate identification and have to be fingerprinted or have outstanding arrest warrants.
Blanskwade said the jail is a good option for people who need medical assistance, because clinicians are available there. For serious injuries, people may be transported to the hospital.
Rios said California Highway Patrol officers use a similar protocol as Sheriff’s deputies when determining where to transport a drunken driver. He said it comes down to whether a person can respond to an officer’s commands.
Rios clarified that no matter the circumstances, if someone is determined to be driving while drunk, a person is charged with a crime and must appear in court.
“Sometimes we can release someone to a relative, to a hospital, to a sobering station, or they go to jail,” Rios said. “Regardless of where this person was released to or if they were booked, they were placed under arrest.”