Police see breweries along the 78, “Hops Highway,” as allies in deterring drunk drivers, not targets. So why the increased numbers there from eight area agencies?
“It’s not like we’re going to camp out in the parking lot of an establishment.” Lt. Eric Skaja, spokesman for the Escondido Police Department, maintains that the “Avoid the Eight on the 78” campaign isn’t targeting beer connoisseurs who frequent the “Hops Highway.” But 78 corridor brewers aren’t so sure.
In late November, representatives from eight San Diego area law-enforcement agencies held a press conference trumpeting the campaign, styled as a cooperative venture aimed at busting the cops’ perpetual bogeyman, the drunk driver. Presided over by Escondido police chief Craig Carter, the rollout was an archetypal dog-and-pony show featuring a weepy testimonial from a woman whose besotted son and brother died after running their car (displayed before the news corps in twisted glory, drivers’ ed style) off Bear Valley Road in October.
Bear Valley Road isn’t Highway 78. And the victims hadn’t been tasting pale ales prior to their demise. Nonetheless, when Carter vowed to track down the source of booze linked to (alleged) DUI incidents, it sounded an alarm among some corridor brewmasters.
Over at the Oceanside office of the California Highway Patrol, officer Jim Bettencourt downplays the role that local breweries might have in spurring the campaign.
“I don’t think there’s an issue with those businesses; we’re just making sure we get the information out to the public.... Drinking and driving is a personal decision, sometimes a choice good people make. But you’ll never hear law-enforcement officers say, ‘Don’t drive drunk’ rather than ‘Don’t drink and drive.’”
Bettencourt believes that driving “under the influence” is no more prevalent on the 78 than it is anyplace else. As far as tracking down the source of the offending ethanol, he says, “I can’t speak for other agencies. We try to get a totality of info. ‘Where were you drinking?’ is one of 20-plus standard questions.”
I query, “Is there any reason to believe that Highway 78 breweries are linked to traffic accidents?
“I don’t think that there are any statistics kept, and if someone is over 21, he won’t be interviewed any further unless there’s a fatality.” In that event, he adds, “Irrespective of alcohol, we conduct a complete 24-hour profile to learn what the driver did during the last day....
“The breweries aren’t in the business of killing people; they provide a service, and I’m sure that they want everyone to get home safely. They’re our best partners. We don’t do the kind of thing you see on TV where officers park outside a bar waiting for patrons to leave and get in their cars; there has to be a vehicle-code violation to stop someone. I don’t see that happening; we’re not going to sit in the hospital parking lot across from Stone Brewing.”
Eric Skaja echoes this assurance. “Sure, if someone calls us and says, ‘There’s a drunk guy driving away here,’ we’ll send someone over. But it’s not necessary or effective to station a unit in front of a brewery. We have a great working relationship with Stone.”
For their part, most of the suds sellers on the 78 are taciturn when it comes to their reactions to the prospect of increased heat.
When asked for comment, Stone is nearly as silent as Pliny the Elder.
“We don’t have any perspectives so we will decline to participate,” demurs spokesperson Sabrina Lopiccolo.
Adam Martinez of Port Brewing is fractionally more voluble. “As a business along the 78, we’re very cognizant of this aspect along the freeway. Anything that can ensure a safer ride for our patrons and employees is something we’ll stand behind.”
The gendarmes can’t legally force an allegedly impaired driver to divulge where he procured their liquor, concedes Skaja. “We use a pre-printed form, and we take down information from statements by the suspect or witnesses.” It’s all rather perfunctory. “If we see a pattern, and we haven’t so far —let’s say there are six DUI arrests where the motorist obtained alcohol from a certain establishment — we’d forward that to the ABC [California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control] who’d conduct their own investigation and impose sanctions.”
Is the campaign just old wine in a new bottle, or does it pose an imminent threat to North County beer quaffers? The Escondido Police Department states that — breezy “Avoid the Eight” moniker aside — the multi-agency effort is no more than the traditional weekend/holiday “saturation” patrol, 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. But will drivers tooling along the 78, whether or not headed for malted barley, notice the increased police presence? “Oh yeah, definitely,” says Skaja.
Sgt. Mark Foster of the San Diego Sheriff’s Department predicts that Highway 78 motorists might say, “‘Wow, I see a lot of Carlsbad PD officers in Escondido,’ or, ‘I see a lot of sheriffs in Oceanside.’” The sheriff’s department, contracted to provide service to Carlsbad, San Marcos, and Vista, admits to a more aggressive stance. Foster states, “We always try to find out where people are drinking. We’ll send an officer there to talk to the owner in a semi-formal contact, tell them to monitor their bartenders. If it becomes a problem, units will work the area near a bar. If there’s an establishment that serves till closing, we’ll patrol the area if we have the opportunity. Let’s say you get multiple reports of people getting intoxicated at a certain establishment; you can get city code enforcement involved or notify the ABC.”
Anonymously, other brewery proprietors tell a different story than the “no comment” or corporate-speak voiced in public by some of their peers. One brewery owner frets, “I’m afraid that if I use my name, the cops will be all over us.”
He believes that the DUI laws are draconian. “My concern is that people are under the misimpression that a DUI is .08, but the blood alcohol limit is really [a de facto] .04. I know someone who went to court here in North County, and the judge threw the book at him. He said, ‘If you blow .04 with any sort of traffic infraction, I’m giving you a DUI.’ And that’s only two beers. I actually have a Breathalyzer in my office that I’m going to try out. Now, we certainly don’t want patrons drinking and driving, getting in harm’s way; if one of our bartenders thinks you’ve had too much, he’ll offer to call a cab and we’ll pay for it. We’re also putting up Uber posters.”
But he echoes the widespread sentiment that drunken driving “crackdowns” where cops bootstrap trivial infractions into costly DUI cases, are no more than shakedowns designed to raise revenue. “We’re in a commercial area and the cops are looking for expired registrations, equipment violations like burned-out tail lights, speeders when there are no other cars around. In the news, I saw a story in which a local real estate broker was hit with a DUI after two glasses of wine and a California stop. Instead of these harsh new enforcement campaigns, why not devote the funds to public transportation?”