Calif. lawmakers push for law to make reckless victims pay search-and-rescue costs

CBS Los Angeles' helicopter, Sky2, caught this image of officials rescuing hiker Kyndall Jack. CBS

(CBS News) Across the country, search-and-rescue teams are being called out more often -- and not because of the weather, but for people acting recklessly. Some think taxpayers are the real victims, and now there's a new push to change that.

It was a tense drama that captivated Southern California in early April. On Easter Sunday, Nick Cendoya and Kyndall Jack set out on a wilderness hike and soon got lost. Search-and-rescue teams spent four days -- and an estimated $160,000 -- combing the mountains of Orange County.

Mike Leum, of Los Angeles County Sheriff of Search and Rescue, said, "I just saw the palm of her hand waving through a bush."

CBS News' Carter Evans remarked, "That must've just been a huge relief."

Leum said, "That was about the best thing I can remember seeing in a long time"

But after a seemingly happy ending, a troubling explanation emerged for why they got lost in the first place. Todd Spitzer, Orange County supervisor, said, "It was reported to me through law enforcement that both Nick Cendoya and Miss Jack were engaged in the use of drugs."

Cendoya was charged with felony drug possession after authorities found methamphetamine in his car. That news caused outrage -- not just because of the cost, but because two rescuers were seriously injured.

Nick Papageorge recalled his fall amid rescue effort, "I fell 110 feet. I bounced off the wall twice, and then came to a stop. I immediately knew that I broke my back."

Now, Orange County politicians are asking the State of California to pass a law allowing local cities and counties to send a bill to people whose reckless acts result in a costly rescue. Spitzer said, "This is really about an educational tool to have people think twice before they do something that, honestly, is just plain downright stupid."

If such a law is approved, California would be the eighth state with search-and-rescue "cost recovery" statutes. But officials say these laws could have unwanted side effects. Leum said, "We don't want to see people charged for a rescue because it will inevitably lead to somebody delaying the request to rescue a loved one and that's gonna cost some lives, without a doubt."

Leum has seen a spike in rescue calls in Southern California. In 2012, there were 560 rescues, up 10 percent from the year before. And it's not just hikers. More amateur athletes are attempting extreme sports, leading to rescues of everyone, from off-trail skiers to inexperienced cliff-climbers.

"Social media has been playing a huge role because people go up into these areas, do extreme activities, film it, and post it on YouTube, Facebook," Leum said. "Other people want to go do the same thing because it looks like fun."

The law's supporters say they'll only target the truly reckless who have the means to pay the costs, ranging from $1,000 to tens of thousands of dollars. But ultimately, it will still be the taxpayers who will come to the rescue because there will likely be a cap on any recovery amount.

Watch Carter Evans' full report in the video above.

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