ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Getting caught driving under the influence in St. Pete is about to come with a much pricier punishment.
This month, city council approved an ordinance change that will allow police officers to issue a $500 fine to individuals arrested for driving drunk or high. The fine would be in addition to the existing towing and impound fees that drivers face in order to get their vehicles back.
"It's a serious crime," St. Petersburg councilman Charlie Gerdes told 10News. He voted with the 6-2 majority in support of the change.
This same fine already applies when cars are used in other crimes like prostitution or drugs.
Gerdes says his support of the change is personal.
The District 1 council member is 22 years sober. Gerdes has been open about his recovery from alcoholism and his own DUI experience.
"I always have been," Gerdes said. "It's who I am, it's part of my life and it's part of how I've gotten where I am today, and so when it's applicable and when it's appropriate, I talk about it."
St. Pete police approached the city with the proposal to change the ordinance, according to Gerdes.
“In this particular instance, my life experience joined my receptiveness to the police department recommendation," he said. "I know that in my life I’m very fortunate that I didn’t hurt someone, kill someone. I nearly ruined my own family’s life."
Gerdes contends it's not a money grab by the department, arguing the majority of the revenue will go into the city's general fund. He also acknowledged concerns raised by colleagues on council who worried the large fine would disproportionately impact lower-income families.
While he sympathized with that concern, Gerdes said it misses the larger point: Individuals who drive under the influence need to understand that their decision can inadvertently and unfairly impact their families and others.
“While this may seem like a burdensome consequence, I believe that those consequences need to be serious for people to take a look at what choices they’re making," he said.
St. Pete police have arrested 445 people for DUIs so far this year, according to the department, which could only provide data through Oct. 5. In 2016, police in St. Pete made 469 DUI arrests.
The five-year average for DUI arrests in St. Pete is 579, according to department spokesperson Sandra Bentil.
Comparably, Tampa police have made 1,534 DUI arrests this year through Sept., which is down significantly from the 2,182 DUI arrests made in 2016, according to the department.
In St. Pete, the ordinance change goes into effect Oct. 12, but officers won't start to issue the fines until Nov. 10 after they receive training, according to Bentil.
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