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February 18, 2010

A telling attack on mandating ignition interlocks for all drunk drivers

A local Tennessee paper has this interesting new commentary which is headlined "MADD's interlock proposal lumps all drinkers in same category."  The piece discusses and attacks a legislative proposal in Tennessee that would call for a specific sentencing response to all drunk driving.  Here are excerpts from the commentary:

This week, Mothers Against Drink Driving (MADD) voiced support for a bill to require ignition interlocks for all drunken driving offenders in Tennessee.  And while at first glance it might seem like a good way to get drunks off the road, readers should know that there is an important argument to be made against the mandatory use of these devices in the cars of all offenders....

[T]he proposed law supported by MADD would force judges to order low-BAC, first-time offenders — even those just one sip over the legal limit (and occasionally under the limit) — to install interlocks.  A 120-pound woman can reach the legal limit of 0.08 after two 6-ounce glasses of wine over a two-hour period. Under this new mandate, if she drives she will automatically be punished with an interlock for behavior that, according to studies, is equivalent to driving while talking on a "hands-free" cell phone. 

Mandating ignition interlocks for all DUI offenders is a one-size-fits-all approach that would punish that woman the same way as the hardcore abusers who cause the vast majority of alcohol-impaired fatalities. It eliminates a judge's ability to treat these very different offenders differently.

America's criminal justice system has a terrible record with universal sentencing guidelines. It's a lesson that the California legislature learned after a "three strikes" law sentenced a man to 25 years in prison for stealing a piece of pizza. Judges should be able to adjust some sentences based on circumstances and common sense....

In addition to targeting the wrong offenders, this mandate will cost millions of dollars to enforce. Based on estimates from the American Probation and Parole Association (APPA), it would cost Tennessee at least $10 million per year to ensure that offenders comply with the interlock mandate.

Most state legislatures have already made it clear that they favor judicial discretion for marginal DUI offenders by rejecting low-level first-offender mandates or passing ignition interlock bills that target high-BAC and repeat offenders. Tennessee should do the same....

MADD is trying to subtly encourage Americans to be supportive of such in-car alcohol-sensors by making interlock technology more ubiquitous. That's why requiring interlocks for all offenders is MADD's top priority in Tennessee.  Tennessee should reject this proposal to require interlocks for all offenders. Instead, the state should target the high-BAC and repeat offenders who pose the biggest threat to safety on the roads.

I do not believe I have previously seen the standard arguments against mandatory prison sentences marshalled against requiring ignition interlocks for all drunk driving offenders, and it is especially interesting to see here the blanket (and, in my view, inaccurate) assertion that "America's criminal justice system has a terrible record with universal sentencing guidelines."  Though I fully agree that a "one-size-fits-all approach" to most sentencing issues is a very bad idea, especially when costly incarceration is involved, I am not sure that the classic arguments against mandatory minimum prison terms are quite so strong with respect to a simply requiring a tailored alternative sentencing mechanism like ignition interlocks for drunk drivers which merely seeks to prevent repetition of a particular type of illegal behavior.

So, who exactly is making this attack on the proposed law supported by MADD in Tennessee?  Is it the folks at the organization Families Against Mandatory Minimums?  Is it a representative of a woman's group concerned that petite women might get punished "the same way as the hardcore abusers"?  Nope, it is Sarah Longwell, who is "the managing director of the American Beverage Institute in Washington."  I am pleased to learn that the American Beverage Institute is so troubled by mandatory sentencing provisions, but I am sorry that this concern only finds expression in a forceful commentary when those provisions are targetting drunk drivers.

Some related posts on sentencing drunk drivers:

February 18, 2010 at 07:09 AM | Permalink

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Comments

Professor Berman-

This issue came up in one of our commission meetings and our judges were generally against mandatory ignition locks for first time offenders because of the lack of discretion and also the potential windfall for a single manufacturer of ignition locks. So it would seem the American Beverage Institute might not be alone on this.

-Shawn

Posted by: Shawn | Feb 18, 2010 9:49:32 AM

I am not sure that the classic arguments against mandatory minimum prison terms are quite so strong with respect to a simply requiring a tailored alternative sentencing mechanism like ignition interlocks for drunk drivers which merely seeks to prevent repetition of a particular type of illegal behavior.

Yet, the issues are similar. Ignition locks are a form of punishment, and like all punishments, they come at a cost. And like mandatory prison terms, mandatory ignition locks force judges to treat all defendants the same, regardless of circumstances.

Posted by: Marc Shepherd | Feb 18, 2010 11:52:45 AM

In Alabama you lose your license for a DUI. If the ignition lock is in lieu of that punishment (keep in mind Alabama also has no public transportation), I can't imagine anyone objecting.

Posted by: Talitha | Feb 18, 2010 11:54:18 AM

The debates about judicial discretion never seem to make the right comparison. The real point is this: discretion results in errors, as does the lack of discretion. Which system will produce fewer errors? Our instincts are that our instincts are good. The data suggests quite the contrary, that we often make substantial, systematic errors in clinical judgment. So as long as the non-discretionary rule is properly designed--a HUGE "if" when it comes to criminal law--it may minimize error costs (even though opponents will always be able to trot out anecdotes about the evils of its inflexibility).

Posted by: John Pfaff | Feb 18, 2010 3:20:08 PM

Where are the data suggesting that discretionary sentencing produces substantial, systematic errors? My sense (and it’s only a sense) is that judges generally get discretionary sentences right, but the few they get wrong attract disproportionate publicity.

It’s also not clear which non-discretionary rules you think are properly designed, and how we would determine that. Those rules tend to be influenced by the worst cases, and therefore tend to be far too harsh for the mine run of defendants.

Posted by: Marc Shepherd | Feb 18, 2010 4:04:09 PM

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