The expression “Driving is a privilege, not a right” may be considered trite, but five motorists leaving the Lodi courthouse Wednesday morning re-learned it the hard way.
Stockton resident Joel Johnson, whose license had just been suspended by a judge for unpaid fines from previous moving violations, was one of them.
Despite a judge’s order not to operate a vehicle, Johnson hopped behind the wheel of his 1970s Cadillac Seville moments after leaving the court.
Within seconds, he was stopped by Lodi police officers who were stationed outside and watched him disobey the command. He was cited for driving without a license and his vehicle was impounded.
As Johnson watched his car hitched to a tow truck from the McDonald’s parking lot on Lodi Avenue, he expressed disappointment in the situation but took responsibility for his actions.
“I couldn’t find a ride to get out here because people aren’t always reliable, and I didn’t want a failure to appear, but that doesn’t excuse it,” he said. “I’ll go through the process, pay my fees, get my license back and then I’ll be OK again.”
Towing companies can charge more than $1,000 for towing and storage fees, police said. However, court fines for driving on a suspended license add an additional $1,000 or more in costs.
Wednesday’s operation featured multiple officers in street clothes and uniform inside and around the court. An undercover officer inside the courthouse watched 18 people appear and listened to see if their issue was resolved. If a license was suspended, they relayed a description of the person to the other officers. If they were stubborn enough to drive away, flashing lights soon appeared behind them.
“These are quality citations,” said Sgt. William Alexander, who monitored subjects as they entered and exited the court from an unmarked vehicle across the street. “These aren’t frivolous offenses; we aren’t picking on people.”
The operation was funded by the same grant that enables the department to operate the driver’s license/DUI checkpoints throughout the year, said Sgt. Chris Jacobson of the Lodi Police Department.
“These stings are done occasionally, but people disregard court orders like this almost every day,” Jacobson said. “Part of our Office of Traffic Safety grant enables us to have resources to crack down on this from time to time.”
Four motor officers and four detectives took part in the sting. Although driving without a license is a misdemeanor and can be an arrestable offense, police elected to impound vehicles and write citations instead.
But tickets and towing were not the only results of the sting; a felony drug arrest was also made.
Jorge Jaramillo, 33, was pulled over after driving away from court, Jacobson said. Upon searching the vehicle, methamphetamine was found by authorities, he said.
Jaramillo was booked into Lodi Jail for possession and transportation of a controlled substance, police said.
While several tickets were written during the sting, most of the subjects who were monitored obeyed the law, police said.
Alexander could clearly see the courthouse from the van he was stationed in and watched as a blonde woman in her early 20s walked out of the courthouse with a woman who appeared to be the subject’s mother. Moments earlier, he witnessed a male in his late-20s walking his girlfriend to the car, opening the door for her before getting in on the passenger side.
“These people get it,” he said.
But some were blatant in their disregard for the law.
One man wearing a white-and-blue shirt and San Francisco Giants hat exited the court and walked to his vehicle parked directly in front of the court. He promptly turned the engine on and pulled away without using a turn signal.
The sting began in the late morning and lasted about 90 minutes. However, a second sweep was conducted later in the day.
“We’ll check up on those who didn’t drive away later to see if they are behind the wheel somewhere else,” Jacobson said. “Some of them think they are sly; others are honestly obeying the law.”
Contact reporter Jordan Guinn at firstname.lastname@example.org.