Thursday, November 23, 2017
Public safety

Drunken driving is about to get more expensive in St. Petersburg

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ST. PETERSBURG — Drunken drivers beware: St. Petersburg has made it even more expensive and onerous to face a charge of driving under the influence.

The City Council recently approved an ordinance change that will allow police to charge a $500 fine along with towing and storage fees to drunken drivers if they want to get their vehicle back from the impound lot after they've been arrested.

The law goes into effect Thursday, but police still need to train before they're ready to start fining vehicles. No date has been set yet for when that would start.

That $500 penalty would come on top of the four-figure sum in court fines and fees it usually takes to resolve a DUI case — and that doesn't include legal fees.

St. Petersburg City Council member Charlie Gerdes, a recovering alcoholic who has been sober for 22 years, said his own DUI arrest served as a wake-up call. Placing a stiff fine against a vehicle, he said, could do the same for someone else.

At the Oct. 5 meeting he voted with the 6-2 majority in favor of the measure.

"Difficult consequences to poor decisions is what changes behavior," he said. "Call Uber, call a taxi, save a whole lot of money and probably a life. There's just too many easy ways to save the $500."

The St. Petersburg Police Department will be the first major law enforcement agency in the Tampa Bay region to be allowed to fine vehicles linked to drunken driving.

The sheriff's offices in Hillsborough and Pasco counties and the police departments in Tampa and Clearwater told the Tampa Bay Times they're not considering this idea. The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office did not answer the Times' inquiry. The Port Richey Police Department already has the ability to levy such fines.

St. Petersburg police legal advisor Sasha Lohn told the council that making drunken driving an even pricier behavior sends an important message to residents that they shouldn't think about getting behind the wheel after drinking.

The change broadens an existing city ordinance that allows officers to charge the fine to vehicles involved with drug activity and prostitution.

The supervisor of the department's DUI unit suggested the change after officers who worked in narcotics and vice noticed a change in behavior in those subjected to the fine in addition to a criminal change, Lohn said.

So far this year, police have arrested 445 people on DUI charges, according to the city.

Council members Jim Kennedy and Ed Montanari, who both voted against the proposal, said they thought it would disproportionately affect poor people who be less likely to be able to afford the fine and associated costs.

"I don't want it to be a piling-on scenario," Kennedy said.

Added Montanari: "I'm thinking of the family if the car gets impounded. Somebody might lose a job, the kids might not be able to get to school."

Nothing in state law bars the city from adding DUI to its list of finable offenses, Lohn said.

But if the car is stolen or driven by someone who isn't the owner, Lohn said, then St. Petersburg police will not impound or fine it.

And the change isn't part of the state's contraband forfeiture act. The vehicle would only be subject to auction if the owner didn't pay the fine within 30 days. But a lienholder could repossess the vehicle, Lohn said.

Drivers contesting the fine can request a hearing with the city and can request an appeal. The city's decision can be appealed to circuit or traffic court depending on the circumstances of the case, Lohn said.

The $500 fine goes into the city's general fund.

The department will conduct a public education campaign before the fines start being imposed. The date that the fines start will be determined by St. Petersburg police Chief Tony Holloway.

Contact Charlie Frago at [email protected] or (727)893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago.

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