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California police department eyes controversial tactic in effort to curb drunk driving

by Chris Hinyub, published

The Huntington Beach Police Department wants to publish the names of suspected DUI offenders on its website in an attempt to prevent and reduce the crime. The department wants to send a “clear message” that they are serious about enforcement. 

According to a report submitted this month to City Council, Surf City police believe drunk driving is a “significant problem,” especially in the downtown district where a high concentration of liquor vendors operate.  "DUIs are a public-safety issue," said police Lt. Russell Reinhart. "Public awareness of the problem, and scope of the problem, is one way of addressing any public-safety concern." 

The Huntington Beach Independent implicated itself in the proposal when writer Britney Barnes stated in a recent story

     “The Police Department considered publishing the names of those arrested for DUI after the Huntington Beach Independent stopped publishing a weekly DUI list in December, according to the city report. The Independent decided to ax the standing feature after a change in editorial policy.” 

“The department is considering posting the names, which are public record, online, not to embarrass people, but to send a message that Huntington is enforcing DUIs,” Reinhart told the paper. "It's not a wall of shame we're looking to put up," he said.  It's unclear how well this strategy will work, considering it is (in essence) the continuation of a policy upheld by the news agency and the police department for years with no reduction in DUI incidences since its inception. 

The department has made an average of 1,700 DUI arrests a year and the report to city council members suggests that in 2008 Huntington's DUI rate was the third-highest for similar sized municipalities – cities of approximately 200,000 residents. 

The report also claims that Huntington currently has the fourth-highest number of alcohol-related traffic collisions. Reinhart says a dozen or so lives are claimed from these each year. 

If officers are trying to “focus on being proactive instead of reactive” about drinking and driving like Reinhart says, it doesn't necessarily follow that hiring another motorcycle officer for DUI enforcement and posting the identities of suspected drunk drivers on the city's police website will do much good. 

Orange County resident, Robert Ameeti was arrested on suspicion of drunk driving about seven years ago. He feels that police are more inclined to react to the problem with an arrest than proactively investigate whether crimes are even being committed.  The effect of such a tactic is the distortion of criminal statistics which are inevitably used to perpetuate and expand policing efforts. 

“What part of 'Innocent Until Proven Guilty' is not being understood?” Ameeti says. “The arrest of a driver because he is thought to be intoxicated does not warrant the driver's name being splashed for all to see.” 

Ameeti was attending a party in Huntington Beach and decided to leave when police arrived, responding to a noise complaint. Ameeti didn't drive far because of a flat tire. As he pulled to the side of the road, he realized one of the responding officers had tailed him and proceeded to detain him by flashing his hailing lights. Arrested and charged with driving under the influence of alcohol, Mr. Ameeti was faced with the unenviable task of proving his innocence in spite of what he claims was a fallacious arrest report. 

Luckily for Ameeti, the police department dropped the charges after a test revealed his blood alcohol content to be around .001. 

     “I knew at the time of my arrest that the charges were bogus but no one bothered to tell me that my blood test had proven me correct,” he relates. “I still had to pay for my car to have been impounded as well as for the blood test along with the hiring of a lawyer. To have had my name publicly pronounced as being assumed to be guilty would have only been one more unwarranted blast against me.” 

Ameeti says people in his situation should not find themselves being written about in the local paper as having chosen to drink and drive.  Unfortunately, for some victims of DUI arrests, they do not have the resources Mr. Ameeti was able to conjure for his defense.

There are an untold number of innocent DUI suspects who, under threat, duress or coercion, plea to the charges against them.

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