Sonoma County DUI data show where suspects drank most recently

The CHP asks each person it pulls over on suspicion of DUI where they had their last alcoholic drink. Their answers may surprise you.|

Sonoma County is a drinking destination. Roads swell with traffic on summer weekends when out-of-county visitors go tasting at more than 425 wineries and two dozen breweries that call the county home.

People line up for hours in downtown Santa Rosa every February to get their three 10-ounce glasses of Pliny the Younger triple IPA - a ration designed to prevent people from drinking too much of the high-octane 10.25 percent alcohol beer.

More than 7 million people come to Sonoma County annually, 4.6 million of whom cite beer and wine as their reason for visiting, according to the Sonoma County Economic Development Board.

While some locals blame beer-drinking and wine-tasting tourists for making Sonoma County roadways less safe, the fact is most drunken drivers in Sonoma County are residents whose last drink came at home, a bar or a restaurant.

A Press Democrat analysis of DUI arrest data from the California Highway Patrol Santa Rosa-area office shows people were five times more likely to be arrested on drunken-driving charges coming from a home than from a winery or brewery.

Every week, on average, more than 50 people are arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs somewhere in Sonoma County, The Press Democrat found. The CHP, which makes nearly 40 percent of those arrests, collects data revealing where many were drinking before they got behind the wheel.

More than 35 percent told CHP officers they had been drinking at a bar or restaurant before they were pulled over, while more than 34 percent said they had been drinking at a home, The Press Democrat analysis found. Just under 7 percent told officers they were drinking at a winery or brewery.

The data come from CHP reports detailing where people say they had their last drink prior to a DUI arrest. While people aren’t legally required to tell officers where they were drinking, they do more than half the time, and those are tabulated in so-called “last drink reports.”

Of the 3,155 total DUI arrests made by the CHP in Sonoma County from 2015 to 2017, more than half - 1,672 - told officers where they had their last drink. Those arrests comprise more than one-fifth of the 8,074 total DUI arrests made by law enforcement agencies in Sonoma County over the three years.

The CHP data reveal some regional differences in DUI activity:

Patrons leaving wineries and breweries account for a much higher proportion of DUI arrests in Healdsburg than other parts of Sonoma County. About 31 percent of respondents who were arrested coming from the Healdsburg area, or 39 people during the three-year period, said they had their last drink at a winery or brewery.

The Graton Resort & Casino is named more frequently in CHP reports than any other single business in Sonoma County. About 38 percent of respondents arrested coming from Rohnert Park, or 72 people during the three-year period, said they had their last sip in the casino just outside the city’s western edge.

Visitors to state and regional parks account for a higher proportion of DUI arrests in west Sonoma County than other parts of the county. About 17 percent of respondents who were arrested while driving from west county, or 35 total, had their last drink at a state or regional park.

Where people drink

For decades, CHP officers have asked each person arrested in alcohol-related DUIs where they had their last drink. It helps the prosecution of DUI cases, said CHP spokesman Officer Jon Sloat.

But it wasn’t until 2015 that CHP-Santa Rosa started creating an annual “Last Drink Analysis” to identify where suspected drunken drivers had been drinking.

“We were asking the questions, so we thought, ‘Why not start putting it together in a report?’?” he said. “But it’s still pretty recent so it hasn’t changed our policies or patrols.”

Responses found in the reports run the gamut - from parks, beaches and “playing soccer” to supermarkets and “dinner with Mom.” Around 4.5 percent of the people arrested on suspicion of DUI over the three-year period, a total of ?75 people, told officers their last drink was at work.

The Sonoma County Department of Health Services has conducted its own “place of last drink” survey for every city in Sonoma County since 2011. The survey is anonymous and is conducted through a county program that people convicted of driving under the influence must take to get their driver’s licenses back.

The county survey also finds the most common place for people to have their last drink is at a home, bar or restaurant, but the dataset has a gap: it does not include most DUI arrests of people who are pulled over while visiting Sonoma County but live outside the area.

Drivers in Wine Country

To many visitors, Healdsburg is the heart of Wine Country. The city of 11,800 is the portal to three of the county’s most renowned wine appellations: the Russian River, Dry Creek and Alexander valleys. It is also the home of one of the county’s best-known brewpubs.

While visitors to wineries and breweries accounted for just under 7 percent of DUI arrests tallied countywide in the CHP last-drink data, they comprised 31 percent of DUI arrests coming from Healdsburg and the surrounding area.

From 2015 to 2017, CHP officers made 110 DUI arrests involving people who said they were coming from a winery or brewery in Sonoma County. Of those, 39 were coming from the Healdsburg area.

Many visitors to the area’s wineries go to great lengths to drink responsibly. They plan ahead and obtain sober drivers to shuttle them around while they drink, said Healdsburg Police Chief Kevin Burke.

“Wine tasting isn’t a spontaneous event; it’s something you plan to do,” Burke said. “People take Uber and Lyft, you have wine limousines … a night on the town drinking is a different animal.”

Healdsburg police tallied ?81 DUI arrests last year, Burke said. Of those, 44 were city residents and 31 were people from other parts of Sonoma County. Six of the arrests were drivers from out of the county.

Many wineries and tasting rooms are outside city limits but still have a Healdsburg address and fall within the jurisdiction of CHP, not local police.

Supervisor James Gore, whose district includes Healdsburg, said in the era of Lyft, Uber and other transportation options, he doesn’t understand why people would risk the roughly $10,000 in fines, fees and legal costs that come with a DUI arrest. Nonetheless, he was surprised the number of DUI arrests was not higher in Healdsburg.

“The number is much lower than I would have thought in a community known for living it up with lots of breweries, wineries and dining,” Gore said.

DUIs from Graton casino

In CHP last-drink reports analyzed by The Press Democrat, one business was named more than any other in Sonoma County: the Graton Resort & Casino.

During the three-year period, 72 people arrested on suspicion of DUI told officers they had their last drink at the casino resort. It equates to more than a third of the respondents arrested while driving from the Rohnert Park area.

The Graton resort draws nearly 10 million visitors annually, said Lori Nelson, vice president of corporate communications for Station Casinos, which manages the resort for the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria. Station Casinos declined requests for an interview but for the first time revealed how many people visit the resort in an attempt to place the number of DUI arrests into context.

The resort, which opened in 2013, boasts four restaurants, three bars and a 200-room hotel. It is the largest casino in the Bay Area, with 3,000 slots and over 100 table games.

All bartenders and servers at the Graton resort participate in training programs that teach them how to serve alcohol responsibly, Nelson said in an email statement.

Still, law enforcement and public officials said the number of people arrested for DUIs after leaving the casino is alarming.

The data “concerns us and I would hope it would concern the casino,” said Sloat of the CHP.

Only three places were listed more frequently by suspects in 1,672 DUI arrests across the county during the three-year period: Home, by 254 respondents; a friend’s house, by 223 respondents; and a relative’s house, by 82 respondents.

“Any place that has such a measurable number of DUIs like that should take it seriously and look at what they’re doing,” said Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, whose district includes the Graton casino. “I would hope that there’s a redoubling of efforts.”

Beer-drinking at beaches

On warm summer days people flock to Sonoma County beaches or head to the Russian River around Guerneville and Monte Rio.

For many, those days outside often include beer, wine and liquor, leading west county to have the highest number of DUI arrests for people who told CHP officers their last drink was at a beach or park: 17 percent, or a total of 35 people during the three-year period analyzed by The Press Democrat.

Countywide just 6 percent of people - 102 total arrests - said their last drink was at a beach or park.

“This is one place we’ve recognized for a while that can be a problem,” Sloat said.

“We have extra officers on the road and most know at a certain time of day people will be packing it up and heading back home.”

Drinking alcohol is permitted in Sonoma Coast State Parks. While most people behave themselves, it can be a “mixed bag” on busy weekends, said Sgt. Tim Murphy, a lifeguard for state parks.

California State Parks rangers and lifeguards made 24 DUI arrests of people over-consuming alcohol in and around parks in the Russian River area from 2015 to 2017, Murphy said. These arrests are not counted in ?CHP data.

After alcohol was banned on Healdsburg beaches, people moved to Mother’s Beach outside Forestville before drinking was banned there, too, in 2015, Sloat said. Then people started drinking more at beaches farther west, he said.

“People will change locations if they find they can’t drink on the beach they had been going to,” Sloat said.

In the three years of CHP last-drink analysis, just over 40 percent of people arrested said their last drink was in Santa Rosa, home to roughly 35 percent of the county’s ?504,000 residents.

They were more likely to be arrested coming from a home than a bar or restaurant, compared to DUI suspects arrested in other parts of the county.

The CHP data show that 42 percent of the DUI respondents arrested coming from Santa Rosa said they had been drinking at a residence, compared to 34 percent of respondents arrested elsewhere.

Many times people are arrested when they leave home to purchase more alcohol or pick up cigarettes at a local store, Sloat said.

Few restaurants, bars and local institutions are spared when DUI suspects tell CHP officers where they had their last drink in Santa Rosa.

For Donna Newman-Fields, prevention coordinator with the county Behavioral Health Division, even one DUI coming from an establishment is too many.

“It’s against California law to serve someone who’s intoxicated,” Newman-Fields said. “People could come in already intoxicated, but servers need to be aware of that.”

Newman-Fields did note she has had a “great response” from Russian River Brewing Co. for the county’s responsible beverage service program. The program teaches bartenders and servers how to spot drunk people and cut them off.

Such training is currently voluntary at establishments licensed to serve alcohol, but all will be required to train their staff by 2020 under state law.

All employees at Russian River Brewing already undergo responsible beverage service training regularly, said Natalie Cilurzo, co-owner and president of Russian River Brewing Co.

“That’s one of the reasons we started closing earlier,” said Cilurzo, noting that the brewpub moved up its closing time to midnight several years ago. “Nothing good happens after midnight.”

It’s expected that people go to bars to drink. While it’s never expected that people will get behind the wheel after drinking too much, it’s not a surprise either. Zero tolerance for drinking and driving doesn’t mean zero DUI arrests.

“In the Buck Rogers future when everyone has a self-driving car we won’t have to worry above people driving under the influence,” Sloat said. “But until then there will always be some who say they’re OK to drive.”

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:
  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.