Drinking, Driving, Killing | SierraSun.com

Drinking, Driving, Killing

Joanna Hartman
Sierra Sun

Emma Garrard/Sierra Sun Photo IllustrationPlacer County has launched a new Probation Department program to monitor convicted drunk drivers and keep them off the road.

Placer County is making extra strides to control a growing epidemic of driving while intoxicated.

Through the Probation Department, Placer County has launched a two-year pilot program to take high-risk, drunk-driving offenders off the roads.

“This is an epidemic,” said Placer Chief Probation Officer Steve Pecor. “This DUI [driving under the influence] program was probation’s and the county’s response to the fast-growing problem.”

Over the last several years, countywide drunk-driving arrests have increased from four per day to more than seven.

“The whole focal point of the DUI effort is the acknowledgment, finally, that a first- and second-time DUI offender is probably more dangerous to the community than a robber, murderer, rapist ” because these are the people out there driving drunk and killing people,” Pecor said.

Thanks in part to a $230,000 grant from the California Office of Traffic Safety, Placer County can now screen one-, two- and three-time drunken drivers to hold them accountable through more aggressive probation monitoring.

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The screening process considers the offender’s blood-alcohol content, prior alcohol-related incidents and whether or not an accident was involved, and identifies those who are among the most dangerous.

With the pilot program, those offenders deemed high-risk are subject to three to five years of formal, supervised probation. In addition to jail time, probation officers will closely monitor their fines, fees and victim restitution.

Furthermore, the offender must complete court-ordered substance abuse programs, submit to alcohol testing, search and seizure, and employment and residence checks.

“Everything about them is subject to inspection,” said Placer County spokesman Robert Miller. “The program is to let them know they’re being watched very closely so hopefully they won’t [drink and drive] ever again.”

“It may seem heavy-handed, but with the increase of repeat DUI arrests in Placer, as they have been statewide, probation got together with the courts and [district attorney] and came up with what we can do about this,” Miller added.

Take the case of Joseph Santen, 36, the Tahoe City man who faces charges of murder, gross vehicular manslaughter, driving under the influence and hit-and-run for allegedly hitting and killing a bicyclist while driving drunk after playing cards at the casinos. Santen had three previous convictions of driving under the influence, one that involved a hit-and-run with a Caltrans snowplow.

Whether or not the pilot program would have helped Santen or prevented the fatal collision is debatable.

“There’s always hope, but at some point it comes down to the desires of the individual. Until they realize that their activities are dangerous and really, in fact, run the risk of harming somebody, they’re not going to change,” said Placer Deputy District Attorney Chris Cattran.

“Stronger probation may get the person to recognize faster ” and maybe prevent it. Something is always better than nothing,” he added.

The quarter-million dollar grant will cover salaries, leased vehicle payments, alcohol testing equipment and vehicle technology related to the pilot program, Pecor said.

“The biggest difference is the realization that driving-under-the-influence offenses are the most serious threat to public safety in Placer County. Our goal is that everyone getting a DUI is getting looked at and screened to be put on this high-risk list,” he said.