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July 24, 2011

Documenting drunk driving sentencing disparities in Detroit

BildeThe Detroit Free Press has this lengthy new piece on sentencing disparities in drunk driving cases.  The piece is headlined "Arrest location could determine the outcome for a drunken-driving penalty," and here is how the piece starts:

More than how much a driver has had to drink or the courtroom skills of his or her lawyer, what most decides the punishment a driver gets for drunken driving in metro Detroit is where he or she gets busted.

South of 8 Mile in Detroit, there's almost no chance a driver will go to jail on a first offense. North of 14 Mile Road in Birmingham and Bloomfield, the same driver can count on a visit to the slammer, a Free Press analysis of local court records shows.

Between the extremes of Detroit and Birmingham, sentencing outcomes run the gamut in metro Detroit. The reason: Michigan law doesn't set guidelines for judges in such cases, beyond limiting the maximum penalty. That gives judges broad discretion to decide the penalty for a crime that led to about 39 arrests a day in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties in 2010.

The toughest judges say the consequences of drunken driving can be so great that a strong message must be sent; others say that few first-time offenders repeat and there's no evidence that harsh sentences deter future violations.

Officials of Mothers Against Drunk Driving worry about inconsistent sentences. The group advocates that even first-time offenders be required to have ignition locking devices on their vehicles that won't allow operation if alcohol is detected on the driver's breath. Such devices are "sure and swift punishment," said Frank Harris, the state Legislative Affairs manager for MADD's national headquarters.

Without sentencing guidelines in state, judge's philosophy could determine outcome in drunken-driving cases. Ford Motor heiress and executive Elena Ford got two years probation and community service for driving drunk in April with her 11-year-old son in the car in Ferndale.

On Wednesday, former University of Michigan and NBA basketball star Jalen Rose faces a likely jail sentence after pleading guilty to driving drunk in a one-car crash in March in West Bloomfield. District Judge Kimberly Small, who has a reputation as the toughest sentencing judge in metro Detroit on drunken-driving cases, will choose his punishment. Even for first offenses, she almost always orders jail time.

Why the difference between Ford and Rose? Without state sentencing guidelines, judges throughout the state can and do treat the misdemeanor crime differently.

Like Ford, Detroit Lions president Tom Lewand avoided a jail sentence when he was arrested on drunken driving charges last summer near Houghton Lake. He pleaded guilty to impaired driving and was sentenced to six months probation and community service.

A Free Press examination of state and local records and interviews with many judges and attorneys found that more than any other factor in drunken-driving cases, location matters. "One courtroom away can be totally different," said Robert Larin, a Bloomfield Hills defense attorney who has handled more than 5,000 cases across the state.

July 24, 2011 at 11:50 AM | Permalink


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There are over 4 million people living in these three counties and there are only 39 drunk driving arrests per day? This tells me that there are wide disparities in who actually gets arrested. I would suspect that in some places they hardly do any drunk driving enforcement and others hammer on it. This could explain sentencing disparity as much as judicial philosophy.

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