DUI rates high for hispanics
Officer Jerry Rico stops a vehicle at a sobriety checkpoint at the Spanish Flat on Lake Berryessa, Saturday, Aug. 19, 2006. About 30 percent of court convitions between Dec. 2004 and Dec. 2005 were person from out of Napa county. Lianne Milton/Register

For two years, the Napa Valley Register has published the names of people convicted of driving under the influence or the lesser charge of reckless driving while under the influence in Napa County.

Ever since the names began appearing in the newspaper, readers have commented on the number of Hispanic surnames on the lists. Why so many, if Napa is predominantly Anglo? Are a higher percentage of Latinos taking risks than other drivers? Are they more likely to get arrested or convicted if stopped? Are the numbers actually higher than the percentage in the population?

After studying the numbers and interviewing local law enforcement officials and leaders in the Latino community, it appears the number of DUIs are higher than the number of Latinos in the population. How much higher is hard to say, because estimates for the numbers of Latinos in Napa County are in dispute, and because Napa County Superior Court records reveal names of those convicted, but not their ethnicities.

During a 13-month period, from December 2004 through December 2005, 1,066 people were convicted in Napa County of DUI or the lesser charge of reckless driving while under the influence. Of those convictions 41 percent, or 439 individuals, had Hispanic surnames.

Census figures released last month report the Hispanic population in the county is about 28 percent.

But many people believe the Census Bureau figures underestimate the Hispanic population here.

Advocates in the Latino community here say they believe the population is closer to 40 percent, perhaps higher. Those figures cannot be corroborated, but even those who track figures say it’s difficult to estimate the size of a population that includes not only established families of U.S. citizens and others who have documentation to work here, but those who are here illegally.

“It’s my sense that there is a substantial undocumented population,” said Napa County Chief Deputy Public Defender Ron Abernethy, whose office represents many individuals who are accused of DUIs. “At times this place may be a bit more Latino than people realize.”

Mary Heim, chief of demographic research at the state’s Department of Finances — which also estimates the county’s population is 28 percent Hispanic — said her agency attempts to account for the undocumented population when issuing its statistics. But, she said “Obviously, counting the population that isn’t documented is difficult.”

At the same time she said “it’s as accurate as it can be. We base our estimates on the vital statistics.” Noting the growth of Hispanics in Napa County, she said, “There are more Hispanic births than Hispanic deaths.”

Behind the wheel

Law enforcement officials and community leaders acknowledge that the number of DUI drivers is higher than official population estimates. They see several possible reasons, many of which focus on the most recent emigrants from Mexico.

Among them:

• Recent arrivals know little about California laws and have little familiarity with the United States law enforcement or justice systems.

• Individuals with low incomes, such as farmworkers, tend to drive battered cars that are more likely to have missing tail lights or other problems that would prompt police officers to pull them over.

• The United States is less tolerant of drinking and driving than other countries.

• Recent immigrants are separated from their families and social structures, and so are more likely to drink.

“I think it might be somewhat cultural,” said Napa County Sheriff Gary Simpson. “Some of it is not knowing the laws, (but) I think it’s probably more cultural than anything.”

In Mexico, the legal blood alcohol level is .08, the same as it is in California. Penalties vary by jurisdiction but normally involve jail time and heavy fines, much like the penalties in the United States.

But Simpson said he believes that in Mexico, it’s fairly common for drivers to be able to bribe policemen and slip away from DUI convictions. He also said that Latino cultures are less inhibited about drinking.

Felix Bedolla is a Napa resident and former leader of Nuestra Esperanza, a community group that worked with troubled and at-risk teens before closing its doors due to funding problems last year. He continues to work with teens and others in the Spanish-speaking community to improve their chances of academic and financial success and their integration into the community.

“I think it’s a complicated issue,” said Bedolla. “One of the things that we know is that the Latino community is very isolated here. So when you have isolation, there’s also a lot of depression and there’s a lot of acculturation issues that Latinos are facing. I think they use alcohol to self-medicate.”

Bedolla also said that in Mexico and other Latin American countries, driving under the influence is more common and DUI laws are not highly enforced.

“It could be that there’s more enforcement (in the United States, but) I think the bigger issue is the acculturation,” he said. “The culture in Mexico is very vibrant and alive. Latinos spend a lot of time with their families. They may be separated from their families (here). Then there’s the whole cultural thing. You don’t understand the system.”

American Canyon City Council member Leon Garcia also focused on recent immigrants, including illegal immigrants.

“I would wonder about knowledge of the law, there’s that issue,” said Garcia. “Undocumented people don’t have driver’s licenses, but they’ll drive anyway. If it’s an issue of drivers not being aware, then it’s solvable. Some guys say ‘I don’t feel drunk,’ but that’s not actually the law.”

California Highway Patrol officer Jerry Rico, said other cultural differences come into play.

“How many Latino bars do we have?” he said. “So you’ll go by the little grocery stores … and you will see, after a hard day’s work, they’ll pull into one of those stores because they have nowhere to drink. You can’t take it back to the labor camps, you can’t drink it there. So where are you going to drink? They don’t have any place to drink so they do it in a parking lot or a picnic table.”

In addition, the criminal justice system can be challenging for those who don’t speak English.

Last year, Simpson told the Register editorial board that only about five or six of his sworn officers speak Spanish, and then just enough “street Spanish” to get by in a typical encounter. The city of Napa Police Department is actively trying to recruit bilingual officers to improve communication with the city’s Spanish-speaking residents.

Then there’s knowledge of how the courts work.

“In terms of anyone who is here illegally or who has only been here for a short period of a time, (they) would have less familiarity with the American justice system,” said Abernethy of the Public Defender Service. “There are a lot of folks who are here who don’t have an appreciation of the criminal justice system.”

But Abernethy said that even if Spanish-speakers don’t understand the criminal justice system, public defenders who may represent them do. Abernethy said he believes law enforcement is color-blind in its approach to DUI cases, in part because charges are often determined by the results of breathalyzer tests administered on the side of the road.

Getting the message out

Luis Arteaga is the leader of the San Francisco-based Latino Issues Forum, which advocates for the Latino community on economic and political issues. Asked about the DUI statistics, Arteaga speculated that “racial profiling” takes place, with police singling out immigrant workers.

Law enforcement officers say that is simply not the case. Lake County Chief Deputy District Attorney Jon Hopkins said he feels that the likelihood of ethnicity being a factor in drunk driving cases is very low.

“The thing about DUIs is, we’ve boiled them down to the numbers. If you get a .08 or higher in Lake County, you are not going to get a reduction (of the charge)” unless there are compelling circumstances. “We’re pretty much looking at the numbers.”

Said Arteaga, “Let’s be clear on this — there is no reason for anyone to drive under the influence. It’s against the law and it’s a serious violation of California law. What I would be really interested in is how much community outreach is being done as to what it means to be driving drunk.”

Randy Snowden, director of the Napa County Department of Health and Human Services, said that his agency could do more to make sure alcohol and drug prevention services are culturally and linguistically attuned to the needs of residents. Snowden said that some of the county’s programs are bilingual and bicultural, but there is room to improve.

“I think we can definitely do more,” he said. “Our prevention services are pretty good as far as treatment services. (But) right now we don’t have enough outpatient treatment services and cultural diversity in (existing) programs.”

Similarly, Napa Police Chief Rich Melton said his department does outreach with the help of Napa County Hispanic Network and St. John the Baptist Catholic Church. Anytime there’s a need to communicate with local Latinos, police hold forums at St. John the Baptist.

But Melton said “we may not have many people show up” at the forums. He said that earning the trust of the Spanish-speaking community here, whether it be 28 percent or 40 percent of the overall population, is a challenge.

Some Latinos don’t talk to police for fear that the officer will check their residency status, Melton said. Others don’t want to talk to Napa police because relationships with police in their home countries are poor.

“I think it does inhibit our ability to help,” he said.

The Napa County Hispanic Network recently acquired a grant that allows them to sponsor three bilingual and bicultural individuals through the Napa Valley College Basic Police Academy program said Ed Shenk, the president of the group. He said that one of the Hispanic Network’s missions is to build bridges between the new community and having more bilingual officers will help do that.

Through it’s El Protector program, the California Highway Patrol visits schools, farm labor camps and community events to inform Latinos about traffic safety. CHP officers such as Jerry Rico attend these events and speak to the community about DUIs.

“We have seen the (DUI) numbers for Hispanic drivers higher than normal, that’s why the program was started,” he said.

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