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April 9, 2006

Undue leniency for drunk drivers?

In this recent post, I pondered why so much more attention is paid to sex offender sentencing than to sentencing for drunk drivers.  Today, this Pioneer Press article, entitled "Going easy on DWI?", explores related issues by noting patterns of leniency in Minnesota sentencing of drunk driving offenses. Here's a snippet:

More than 40 percent of felony DWI offenders who go before judges facing three or more years in state prison get county jail terms of a year or less, data from Minnesota courts show.  Some county prosecutors said judges are thwarting a 2002 law aimed at sending chronic drunken drivers to prison. "The judges unilaterally are engaged in a pattern of undermining the public's will as to how dangerous this crime is," said Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner. "I don't understand why, approximately half the time, the judges are giving these felons yet another break."

But the law gives judges discretion, which they often use to give less time to offenders who promise to treat their alcoholism, said Anoka County District Judge Sharon Hall, a Minnesota District Judges Association past president. "It isn't simple.  That's why judges have sentencing discretion.  Many times the prosecution and the defendant will come to a plea agreement," Hall said. "They make arrangements for treatment, and sentencing is set out a couple of months to see how they'll deal with sobriety." ...

Gaertner and a victims' advocate suggest that judges are slapping wrists instead of imposing prison because the defendants are perceived as "people like us."  "These people could be your neighbors, your friends, your family members," Gaertner said.... Even when guidelines call for prison, judges may struggle when they look at the individual facts surrounding a felony drunken-driving case, said Hall, the Anoka County judge. "Most people aren't intending to get drunk and drive," Hall said. "That's why we always wrestle with drug and alcohol cases. It's not the same as someone who picks up a gun or knife and shoots or stabs, or breaks into a home. It's a whole different mind-set."...

"These cases are being treated like there were gross misdemeanors in their sentencing," [Dakota County Attorney James] Backstrom said. "This impacts more people in the public than any other crime we deal with.  It happens all the time— crashes involving drunken drivers."

April 9, 2006 at 01:07 PM | Permalink


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Like a politician, the reporter muddles the numbers to reach the conclusion she wants. She writes about DWI offenders facing "three years in prison" and getting a "break" of one-year jail terms. But the only DWI offenders facing three years in prison are first-time felony DWI offenders and the presumptive sentence for that crime is a stayed three-year sentence. Even if an offender has a short criminal history, he or she faces a presumptive stay for the first felony DWI offense. Judges aren't thwarting the will of the people when they place these offenders on probation, they are following the law. Furthermore, the article couldn't be more biased. There are quotes from prosecutors and judges. But is there a single defense attorney quoted? No. (full disclosure - I am a Minnesota public defender). There is a quote from MADD, but is anyone from the State Sentencing Guidelines Commission, the agency charged with setting presumptive sentences, quoted? No. The reader gets the impression that there is only one side to this story. There is not, and the Pioneer Press knows better.

Posted by: Ben | Apr 10, 2006 11:06:40 AM

A little over half of DUI cases involve drunk drivers. The rest are merely over the legal limit. Federal law requires states to treat drivers over 0.08% blood alcohol as if they were drunk.

In a civil case in the Southern District of West Virginia a federal judge ruled that an accident involving a driver over the legal limit was an accident, not an intentional act. He noted that the chance of a death occuring during an act of drunk driving was about one in 9,000.

With something like 100 property damage accidents per fatality the chance of doing any harm is about 1%.

Far more than 1% of sex offenses result in some harm.

Posted by: John F. Carr | Apr 10, 2006 7:44:43 PM

In my opinion sex cases has more weight than DWI due to immorality.

Posted by: minnesota dui attorneys | Oct 3, 2006 2:05:29 AM

I think it just happen that the current issue highlights on sex cases. There are many DUI cases yet maybe few concerned individual in regards of the DUI.

Posted by: the dui attorney | Oct 3, 2006 2:09:02 AM

Susan Gaertner’s comments are disgusting. She knows full well why sentences fall the way they do, since she, and her deputies are in court every day, and are participating in peoples’ sentencing Instead, with her law degree in hand, she trolls the public with political rhetoric. She doesn’t explain why she has been unable to seek any appellate relief, either. She had an obligation to explain the sentencing scheme in details, and explain why judges in, at a minimum, a sample of cases, made an error of law. She also had an obligation to explain what position her office took in court.

This kind of political rhetoric makes lawyers look bad.

While I don’t have a specific opinion on drunk driving sentencing, I should note that from time to time people write that it is unduly harsh, and disproportionately injures the poor.

As one other commentator pointed out, it is unlikely that DUI is the most morally repugnant of all crimes. For the most part, people are not intending to do harm. Most people know that molesting children is considered immoral, and they make a conscious choice not only to molest children. Indeed, unlike the drunk driver that hurts nobody, a pedophile will not be punished for merely “liking” children in an immoral way (this isn’t a crime in the US).

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