There are thousands of drunk driving cases on district court dockets around the state. To try and help get them cleared out, a bill has been filed to allow first time offenders to get deferred adjudication.
First-time offenders could be acquitted of the offense if they complete supervision and treatment. If the offense were repeated, it would become grounds to boost future punishments.
“Generally we do not support deferred adjudication bills, but we are going to support this one,” said Bill Lewis, public policy liaison for the Irving-based nonprofit group MADD. “Right now, we are hearing that many cases are not getting prosecuted for DWI but for a bogus charge. We hope the practice of reducing charges will be reduced if this bill does indeed pass.”
The proposal, filed by Rep. Todd Smith, R-Euless, marks a shift away from a long-standing notion in Texas that all drunken drivers should face fines and jail time. Deferred adjudication for such offenses was abolished in the state in the mid-1980s when opponents, including MADD, argued that prosecuting offices and judges were accepting the form of probation for repeat offenders.
Supporters say the plan could ease court backlogs by routing cases out of courtrooms, give prosecutors a new negotiating tool and remove the threat of jail that makes some first-timers refuse guilty pleas in DWI cases.
By the time a House legislative committee held a hearing on the issue in August, more than 122,000 misdemeanor DWI cases were pending in state district courts. Prosecutors argue they are too limited in the options they can offer first-time offenders.
“Our alternatives that we can offer have diminished such that our bargaining positions have weakened, and cases are backing up,” testified Richard Alpert, a 24-year Tarrant County prosecutor who has become a key figure in the fight against drunken driving.
The bill in question appears to be HB 189. My initial impression on reading this story was that it sounded like a good idea. But I’m not a defense attorney, and no one from the criminal defense bar was quoted reacting to Rep. Smith’s bill. Someone should have called Mark Bennett for an opinion, because that would have significantly changed the way this was presented:
What would deferred-adjudication probation add to defendants’ options, either in Harris County or elsewhere?
A deferred-adjudication probation is not, as the Chronicle article would have it, an acquittal. It cannot be expunged. In most non-DWI cases, deferred-adjudication probation has two advantages over straight probation: 1) it is not, for purposes of Texas criminal law (but is, for purposes of Federal sentencing and immigration law, among other things), a conviction; and 2) it can be sealed from public view with a petition for nondisclosure at some point after the probation is successfully completed.
Nondisclosure is important because of the opprobrium that attaches to many criminal convictions. Try renting an apartment with a felony drug offense on your public record; try getting hired when the boss finds out about your misdemeanor theft deferred. While deferred is not technically a conviction, there is nothing to stop private individuals from treating it as one, so they do.
But nondisclosure would be less important in DWI cases because the stigma of a DWI conviction is not nearly that of a crime involving dishonesty, violence, or even drugs. It would not be unimportant—there might be some employers reluctant to hire (or eager to fire) employees with DWI—but I’m betting that if deferred adjudication becomes available for DWI, nondisclosure will be unavailable for DWI (as it is for sex-offender-registration and family violence offenses, among others). So deferred adjudication will not provide an advantage to DWI defendants over straight probation.
What about the fact that a DWI deferred would not, for purposes of Texas criminal law, be a conviction? The only real effect of a deferred not being a conviction is that it is not available for enhancement, as a conviction would be, if the accused gets charged with something else. The supporters of DWI deferred have a plan to wire around that: “[I]f they do reoffend, it can be used to enhance their punishment,” says Tarrant County prosecutor David Alpert.
(Note: Mark linked to the Chron reprint of this story.) Doesn’t sound so appealing now, does it? Well, it likely would help clear out that backlog, but not in a way that is helpful to anyone facing a DWI charge. I think this bill has enough support from the usual suspects that it has a decent chance of passing, so it’s worth keeping an eye on it. Grits, who reacts favorably to the story, has more.