March 02, 2009
Blow before you drive

MADD wants to make it harder for people with a drunk driving conviction to get behind the wheel.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving is again pushing Texas legislators to require ignition interlocks for people convicted of their first driving while intoxicated offense.

The ignition interlock device tests a driver's breath to confirm he or she hasn't been drinking before the car will start.

"We really want to see this on first-time offenders in order to prohibit the third or fourth time down the road," said Hope Rangel of Humble, executive director for MADD's Southeast Texas region.

Proposed legislation, including bills filed by state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and state Rep. Bill Callegari, R-Katy, calls for the interlock to be installed for offenders convicted of their first DWI who are placed on probation.

Two similar measures filed in the last legislative session in 2007 died in committee.

Callegari has HB1110. Ellis has SB170, which has a companion bill in the House, HB379 by Linda Harper-Brown.

Current Texas law requires interlocks as a condition of probation only for repeat offenders or those with a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.15 in any alcohol-related driving offense.

The device also is required for those released on bail while awaiting trial if they are charged with repeat DWI offenses or if they hurt or kill someone while driving drunk.

Although the proposed legislation is encouraging, Rangel said, many convicted drunken drivers in Harris County are opting for jail time instead of probation. If an offender chooses to go to jail, no interlock is installed.

Drunken drivers put on probation have to pay for the device -- which can average about $150 a month -- so they might find jail more appealing, she said.

Actually, there are quite a few other reason why these offenders might find jail more appealing. They were laid out in a Chron story from 2006 on why so many first-time DUI offenders chose jail over probation:

Facing the stiff costs and strict rules that come with probation, thousands of convicted drivers in recent years have decided spending time behind bars is the better option.

And in a county already struggling with crowded jails, that's a disturbing trend. Sentences can be short enough to mean losing only one weekend and a vacation day, but some end up behind bars as long as half a year.

"Because of the number of sanctions and what the defendants feel is the 'hassle factor,' many opt not to go on probation," said County Criminal Court at Law Judge Sherman Ross. "Financially, it's more expensive."

The choice of jail time also may mean fewer options for treating the alcohol problems that land many drivers there.

"Probation has become so onerous that there's no incentive to take it," said Bob Wessels, manager of the county criminal courts at law. "If we really want people in treatment, we aren't providing incentives."

Of the 6,685 DWI defendants in the county who accepted plea agreements last year, 2,894 (43 percent) took jail time rather than probation, Wessels said. In 2000, fewer than 10 percent (479 of 5,034) chose jail.

Last year's figure, though significant, did represent a drop from 2004, when it reached 52 percent. Robert Pelton, past president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, attributes the decline at least partly to lawyers not doing all they should for their clients.

"I think any attorney is doing a disservice to their client by putting them on probation," he said.

Pelton, a defense attorney for 31 years, said he generally advises clients to take the jail time because probation can be so arduous, financially and otherwise. Probation for DWI carries another risk: If it's revoked, a judge can pile on even more jail time than originally would have been ordered.

This, added to the fact that Harris County has the highest per capita rate of probation revocations in Texas, means it may make more sense to burn some vacation time behind bars, Pelton said.

Grits blogged about this at the time. It's yet another reason why Harris County's jails are overcrowded. It seems to me that if we got serious about this problem and removed some of the perverse disincentives for choosing probation, we could accomplish MADD's objective without the need for new legislation and do a lot of good for the criminal justice system and the taxpayers of Harris County. Of course, that's hard work, and passing a new law is comparatively easy. Point is, we could have already achieved this goal, without needing to wait for another opportunity in the Lege.

By the way, the story notes that installing the interlock can already be a condition of bail or probation. It might be nice to know why it's only done sometimes and not as a matter of course before we require it.

Back to the original story:

Research suggests lawbreakers with prior DWI convictions are a serious problem. MADD claims such offenders comprise nearly one-third of the alcohol-related dangers on the road.

Last year, Texas had 124,662 residents with three or more DWI convictions, according to the state Department of Transportation. The agency reported 18,271 other Texans had five DWI convictions or more.

One person had 22 convictions, the most of any driver in the state, TxDOT said.

Drunken drivers involved in fatal crashes were eight times more likely to have a prior DWI conviction than sober drivers involved in a fatality, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported in 2007.


Not everyone supports MADD's proposal.

The American Beverage Institute, a restaurant trade association, is urging the Texas Legislature to reject the bills.

Institute spokeswoman Sarah Longwell said ignition interlocks for first-time DWI convicts "ignore the root cause of today's drunk-driving problem: hard-core alcohol abusers."

Well, okay, but one could argue that those hard-core abusers will have a first offense, at which time they will get the ignition lock. For however long that lasts, anyway - the text of the Ellis/Harper-Brown bill only says "The court shall order the ignition interlock device to remain installed for at least half of the period of supervision", which strikes me as more relevant for probation than for someone who chose jail time. I suppose they're arguing more money should be put into treatment, and if so I certainly agree. I don't see how that's incompatible with this bill, however.

The bottom line is that while I agree with the goal of this effort, I have problems with the means being proposed to attain it. Let's fix what's wrong with probation first.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on March 02, 2009 to Crime and Punishment

Not included in the figures are the repeat offenders who simply drive more carefully when drunk or are just plain lucky and most likely they are just plain lucky.

Then there are the first-time offenders who kill someone as Judge Pat Shelton's daughter did. Drunk as a skunk she was. And maybe she learned not to drink and drive. And maybe she didn't. The fact remains she killed someone.

It is not feasible but the best solution to drunk driving would be to mandate ingition locks on all vehicles so no one wuld be able to drive drunk.

I would love to watch the ACLU along with the liquor industry defend the "constitutional" right to drink and drive.

As for probation being a solution I doubt jail time has had much effect so why would anyone believe "education" as part of probation would?

When our state legislators refuse breathalyzers and then judges dismiss charges against them, it is quite obvious that our legislature is part of the problem rather than the solution. They always manage to insert loopholes. Just in case they themselves need them.

No one should be above the law. Particularly above the DWI/DUI laws.

The best solution, again, would be to ensure no one can drive drunk by mandating ingition locks on all cars. Including, or perhaps particularly, on the cars of our legislators.

Posted by: Baby Snooks on March 2, 2009 12:03 PM
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