California Alcoholic Beverage Control agents are also on the lookout for speeders
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (KCRA) —
Though they’re tasked with upholding laws regarding the legal sale of alcohol, California Alcoholic Beverage Control agents are also on the lookout for speeders, unsafe lane changers and stop sign runners.
A 5-month-long KCRA 3 News investigation revealed ABC agents cited drivers for more than 700 traffic violations from 2014 to 2016.
While many of the citations were alcohol-related -- offenses like driving under the influence or driving with an open container -- 35 percent of the violations had nothing to do with alcohol.
Those citations included illegal use of the carpool lane, burning rubber, illegal camping and even riding a bike at night without a light.
During those encounters, ABC agents were dressed in plain clothes and drove in unmarked vehicles.
“It does not look like a police vehicle”
In the case of then-27-year-old Nan Lin, ABC agents attempted to pull him over in Vacaville while he was driving from Sacramento to San Francisco on Interstate 80 in 2014.
When he looked in his rear-view mirror, he saw what appeared to be a gold Pontiac sedan with lights flashing in the front window behind him.
Lin took out his cellphone and recorded the car following him.
“It does not look like a police vehicle,” Lin says in the video, which was later posted on YouTube.
Lin eventually stopped recording and called 911. He told dispatchers that a suspicious vehicle was attempting to pull him over. Dispatchers told Lin not to pull over “under any circumstances.”
“(The car then) pulled up right next to me, (with) fully tinted windows. I can only imagine that window rolls down, some gangster is in the car,” Lin said. "That’s what I had in mind when I saw the car next to me.”
However, a few minutes later, a dispatcher called Lin back and said the gold Pontiac sedan was a legitimate law enforcement vehicle.
Lin then pulled over -- and was handcuffed by an ABC agent.
After the misunderstanding was explained, the agent eventually cited Lin for making an unsafe lane change and following too close to the vehicle in front of him.
He was not cited for an alcohol-related violation.
During the encounter, Lin was under the impression the agents were California Highway Patrol officers.
“If I would have known it was a different agency, I think I would have fought it for sure,” Lin said. “I don’t know if they’re trained, specifically for traffic violations.”
“Maybe they just came across things”
The number of traffic citations issued by ABC agents differs from city to city. Between 2014 and 2016, the more than 700 citations were issued in only 116 of the nearly 500 cities in California.
In Sacramento, 95 citations were issued. Yet in Los Angeles, a city with more than eight times the population of Sacramento, drivers were cited for just seven violations over the 3-year period.
During that period, nearly one-third of the citations were issued in 5 cities, which have a combined population of more than 1.7 million:
San Francisco: 59
Santa Rosa: 28
However, just 2.4 percent of the citations were issued in California’s three largest cities, which have a combined population of more than 6.39 million:
Los Angeles: 7
San Diego: 5
San Jose: 5
ABC spokesperson John Carr struggled to explain the large difference from city to city.
“I don't know,” Carr said. “Agents that worked in this area, maybe they just came across things in their field work and made a decision to pull someone over when they saw something that was going to enhance public safety.”
The number of citations issued also differs from agent to agent. While a majority of the agency’s sworn personnel cited drivers for one to two violations, several wrote dozens of tickets, including one officer who cited drivers for 57 violations.
That prolific traffic ticket writing agent is the same agent who made national headlines after she arrested a man for DUI in Fairfield when tests revealed caffeine was the only drug in his body.
That charge was eventually dropped 16 months later.
“Some officers are out, they're out in the field, (and) they might come across something that compromised public safety,” Carr explained. “If one officer has more citations than the other then, you know, either they saw something they came across or something in their training.”
“It really, truly should be the exception”
The number of traffic tickets being written by ABC agents came as a surprise to law enforcement consultant and former Sacramento County Sheriff John McGuinness.
McGuinness noted that ABC agents are sworn peace officers and technically allowed to enforce any section of the vehicle and penal codes. However, he also questions if ABC agents should be making traffic stops so frequently.
“I think that's the job of a uniformed officer,” he said. “And it's probably the best way that responsibility should be exercised.”
However, McGuinness admitted that when he was a homicide detective, he would pull over and cite drivers if he saw them do something unlawful.
“I will never say that it shouldn't be done,” he explained. “In fact, personally, I have done it -- on numerous occasions. But it really, truly should be the exception.”
While CHP officers are trained and retrained on traffic enforcement, Carr couldn’t explain what type of traffic training ABC agents undergo.
“I don't know if they would go through the exact same training,” Carr said. “That I can't answer.”
CHP said it can’t comment on ABC agents issuing citations on California highways.
So, what is the mission of ABC?
“Our mission is basically to enhance public safety, you know, try and keep the community as safe as possible by reducing any alcohol-related problems,” Carr said.
Lin believes traffic enforcement doesn’t fit that description.
“That’s not their main priority and their main focal point,” he said. “I feel that they have more chances of them messing up and misinterpreting the law or misreading the situation, rather than someone who is on the freeway.”
Now, he’s left wondering who should be enforcing the rules of the road.