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July 30, 2009

Some innovative approaches to sentencing drunk drivers

At Grits for Breakfast, Scott Henson has this extended post on a new proposal being implemented in Harris County, Texas for dealing with drunk driving offenders.  Here are the basics via Grits: "Bottom line, all first time DWI defendants will be offered two options: 30 days in jail or two-years on probation in a newly created (and poorly named) 'diversion' program, after which charges will be dismissed."  This Houston Chronicle story highlights the negative buzz the proposal is getting from the defense bar:

Defense lawyers said the Harris County District Attorneys office's new DWI diversion program, set to begin Aug. 1, may be unworkable, and possibly illegal, after hearing the details Wednesday....

JoAnne Musick, president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, said the program is coercive and appears to thwart the intent of the Legislature, which prohibits deferred adjudication for DWI offenses.

"It could have been a good program. It could have been an exceptional opportunity for people who have made a mistake and driven when they shouldn't have,” Musick said. “At the same time, I think it's very poor planning and execution on how to conduct the program.”  She said the plan is coercive because defendants have to waive their rights, sign a contract and plead guilty.  She said defendants could be sent to jail at the smallest amount of evidence of a mistake or if they fail to fulfill every requirement.

Meanwhile, this story from USA Today, which is headlined "U.S. may require anti-DWI locks on vehicles," spotlights what strikes me as a more effective and sophisticated approach to sentencing first-offense drunk drivers:

A national campaign against first-time drunken-driving offenders is gaining ground as states and the federal government weigh mandatory use of devices requiring violators to prove their sobriety before their engines start.  Three more states have enacted laws this year requiring all violators to install devices called alcohol ignition interlocks, bringing to 11 the number of states with such rules.  The instrument blocks a vehicle engine from starting if it detects alcohol on the breath of drivers.

The current version of a federal transportation funding bill, which could be debated by Congress this fall, requires all 50 states to mandate the devices for anyone convicted of drunken driving or risk losing federal highway money.  Today, 47 states and the District of Columbia have interlock ignition laws for at least some offenders. Alabama, South Dakota and Vermont have no such laws. They are installed in about 150,000 vehicles in the USA — a number that would approach 1 million if they were required for every convicted drunken driver.

Proponents of broader use of interlock systems — including MADD, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the Governors Highway Safety Association — say they would save an additional 4,000-8,000 lives a year.  They point to New Mexico, which was a perennial national leader in alcohol-related crashes in 2005 when it became the first state to require ignition interlocks for all convicted drunken drivers.  The interlock law was part of a campaign that has spurred a 35% drop in drunken-driving deaths there.

Some related posts on sentencing drunk drivers:

July 30, 2009 at 09:46 PM | Permalink

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