By John Earl
Surf City Voice
Councilmember Devin Dwyer’s proposal to post the names and photos of habitual DUI suspects on the police department’s Facebook page ignited nationwide news coverage and controversy, but it also opened a broader discussion about Surf City’s alcohol problem and what to do about it.
A study by the Huntington Beach Police Department showed that the high concentration of bars and restaurants selling alcohol downtown is linked to the city’s number one public safety threat –drunk driving (“Surf City’s Alcoholic Downtown”).
But on Jan. 18 the City Council voted 4-3 to direct the Chief of Police not to use Facebook to post DUI suspects’ profiles, whether they are “habitual” offenders or not. There were council concerns that the measure wouldn’t work, that it would humiliate innocent family members, and that it would scare off tourists.
Matt Harper was one of three council members (with Dwyer and Don Hansen) who supported Dwyer’s proposal and who opposed restricting the police. He had opposed Dwyer’s original idea of announcing every DUI arrest on Facebook, he told the council, but favored his “more deliberative and much more vetted” revised approach of exposing only “habitual” offenders.
Harper said he was glad to have the discussion.
“I do like the dialogue,” Harper assured the council. “I do like the council members getting out onto the table what their thoughts are because I think they’re representative of a lot of the thoughts that are happening in our community.” In light of changing Internet trends, he added, the council probably should periodically revisit the idea rather than implement it permanently.
But Harper was being obtuse or perhaps evasive, despite his call for a public dialogue.
Nobody on the council, including Harper, challenged the assumption that first-time arrested drunk drivers should be let off the hook. The reason given for that in other discussions was to respect the presumption of innocence. But that presumption is already overlooked in arrest logs that the police are mandated by law to publish and that have always been available at police stations and, more recently, on regular city websites.
The so-called habitual offender is also presumed innocent when arrested, so why not expose first-time (alleged) DUI offenders on Facebook as well as the alleged habitual DUI offenders?
The first-time alleged DUI offender would also be tempted to drive on a suspended or revoked license, same as the habitual offender. If that person did drive illegally, he could be reported to police by family members, friends or public citizens who know of his driving restrictions and recognized him from Facebook; again, same as for the habitual offender.
And, perhaps, the threat of being placed on Facebook might prevent the first-time DUI suspect from becoming a repeat offender or prevent some other potential drunk driver from getting behind the wheel in the first place. In other words, the same logic applied to the habitual offender argument can be applied to all alleged DUI offenders.
Surely, making one size fit all would be more consistent with the idea that a good Facebook flogging would serve as a deterrent and alert to others and help to ensure public safety.
Harper might be excused for not addressing the full range of possibilities for using Facebook to combat the city’s alcohol problem if not for one detail that he failed to bring up at the council meeting and that has not been reported in the press until now:
On Dec. 19, 2004, at about 1:30 in the morning, Harper was arrested by the HBPD on Beach Blvd. and Bishop Street in the city of Westminster and then booked in the Huntington Beach City Jail for driving under the influence and being well over the blood alcohol concentration limit (BAC), according to court records. Harper was serving as an elected member of the board of the Huntington Beach Unified High School District at the time.
When contacted by the Voice, Harper spoke willingly about the incident and acknowledged that on the night he was arrested he had eaten but also downed seven alcoholic drinks between the hours of 6 p.m. and 1 a.m.
Put another way, Harper was arrested for binge drinking, which the Center for Disease Control says contributes to 80 percent of “impaired driving events” and which it defines as having a BAC of 0.08 percent from a single occasion—an occasion being from 2 – 5 hours long–usually from five (for men) or more drinks.
A breath test he took at the time of arrest showed an blood alcohol concentration of .131.13, which means that he was legally drunk to a point that could significantly impair balance, judgment, memory and motor skills.
Harper admits that what he did was both “illegal” and “inappropriate” but added that “some people will have different views” about what happened. He offered his own interpretation of why he was pulled over by the police.
In Harper’s view, he fit in well among the drunk driver profile types that the police were looking for when he was arrested: a 30-year-old male driving without his car lights on, late at night, three nights before Christmas.
“There were a lot of fish to be caught and I was one of them that night,” he said.
Harper’s DUI charge (count 1 of two misdemeanor charges) was dropped and he eventually pled guilty to the second count of driving over the legal limit of .08 percent blood alcohol content.
Harper was given three years informal probation with driving restrictions for 90 days, mandatory counseling and he paid over $1,500 in fines. After successfully completing his probation he changed his plea to not guilty for the second count, which was then dismissed by the court.
Harper had no prior arrests for drunk driving and has been clean since 2004. But as he pointed out, and as an HBPD study shows, many drunk drivers aren’t caught. Full disclosure: twice in the mid 70s and once in the early 80s this reporter was one of those people who drove under the influence but did not get caught. Luckily, there were no accidents.
The Voice was aware of Harper’s drunk-driving conviction prior to the November election when he ran for his first term on the City Council but did not report the incident then because it was deemed irrelevant as a news item.
In Harper’s view, his arrest and conviction for drunk driving is still irrelevant, despite that he voted on an issue that was directly related to his own personal experience, an experience that might have given him insights that he could have shared for the public benefit at the time of the vote.
Although Harper is required by law to disclose his conviction in response to “any questionnaire or application for public office, for licensure by any state or local agency,” etc., he believes that its dismissal separated him from it forever. “It was as if I had a car and I sold the car and no longer have the car,” he explained.
“I didn’t feel that it would contribute significantly to the discussion in the same way that others [on the council] didn’t think they should have disclosed about speeding tickets under item 13,” he said, referring to a council discussion and vote (also on Jan. 18) on an ordinance that would change speed limits on city streets.
Harper’s take on the cause of the downtown area’s huge DUI problem is that it’s the result of the city’s unique geography–backed up against the sea rather than centrally located or near a freeway that would take drunk drivers away to be arrested elsewhere–and its highly concentrated younger (18-30) demographics. The long term remedy, he says, is to increase the diversity of businesses and store fronts downtown, with mixed-use residential to create clients who can walk rather than drive to and from the bars and restaurants.
If nothing else, Harper’s arrest and conviction for drunk driving, along with the entire Facebook controversy, helps illustrate how easy it is to blame others while ignorning the effects of our own policy decisions.