Do DWI laws need rehab?
Senators looking scrapping surcharges, adding treatment
Several of the steps taken by Texas in the past 20 years to crack down on drunken drivers came under sharp criticism at the Capitol on Thursday for creating more problems than they have solved.
And much of the criticism came from police and prosecutors — who in years past have championed many of the programs they now say are not working.
Members of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee hinted strongly that they are considering major changes to state law on how drunken drivers are dealt with in the criminal justice system.
The lawmakers talked about altering a program that automatically suspends drivers’ licenses, possibly repealing a surcharge that fines convicted drunken drivers thousands of dollars and creating new treatment programs for first-time offenders.
They also heard testimony from supporters of tougher laws, who are pushing for sobriety checkpoints and mandatory devices to keep drunks from starting their cars.
Texas leads the nation in the number of DWI fatalities, which has dropped slightly in recent years but still was 1,269 last year. The number of DWI arrests is also one of the highest in
“We’ve got a checkerboard system now that is not a good system in some respects,” committee Chairman John Whitmire, D-Houston, said after the morning public hearing. “Some of the changes we made in years past have had unintended consequences that we’re just now finding out about.”
Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo was among several law enforcement officials from across Texas who testified in favor of sobriety checkpoints and mandatory blood tests, and for new treatment programs for first-time offenders, a change he said could keep motorists from repeating the mistake of driving drunk.
Roughly half of Austin’s traffic fatalities each year are alcohol-related, he said, and although traffic deaths in Texas’ capital city are down so far this year — 13 fewer, compared with the same period in 2009 — additional enforcement tools could save even more lives.
“We are waiting way too long to intervene,” he added, noting that people with drinking and drug problems are responsible for many crimes besides drunken driving. “If we can’t intervene in people’s lives, we can’t change their behavior. … It has to start with the first arrest.”
Several senators seemed to agree that mandatory treatment for first-time DWI offenders should be an option.
“Right now, we take someone off the streets with a disease and put them in prison for five years,” said state Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo. “When they get out, they still have that disease — we have a drunk driver with a record. … The question is, when do the people of the state pay more for an offense than the person who committed it?”
Other officials testified that a law enacted about six years ago that levies additional fines on drunken drivers is leading many Texans to violate other laws because they cannot afford to pay. The so-called surcharge program was established to help pay for trauma care in Texas, but defendants currently owe the state about $54 million in fines.
The surcharge can be thousands of dollars. Drivers who cannot renew their licenses because they owe the state money are continuing to drive, without licenses and without insurance, the committee was told.
“The surcharges have devastated our criminal justice system,” Whitmire said after several police officials and prosecutors testified that many DWI defendants opt for jail time because they cannot afford the fees. “This particular part of the system appears to be broken.”
Harris County Criminal Court Judge Jean Hughes echoed the sentiment: “It’s causing more problems than it’s helping.”
Police and prosecutors testified that the problem is amplified by the automatic license revocation program, which makes it difficult for DWI offenders to get their licenses back.
Shannon Edmonds, with the Texas District and County Attorneys Association, the leading prosecutor group, suggested that automatic license revocation should be reviewed as well.
“You could eliminate that program … and I don’t think it would have that much of an impact on the system,” he said.
Despite the criticisms of current law, Bill Lewis, with Mothers Against Drunk Driving, warned against changing laws that have helped reduce DWI fatalities in recent years. He urged lawmakers to instead approve sobriety checkpoints and so-called ignition interlock devices for first-time offenders, so they cannot start their cars if they have been drinking.
Countering arguments that the checkpoints are intrusive, Lewis said, “I’ve never tried to carry a gun into the airport or the Capitol or the Senate gallery, yet I go through a checkpoint” to enter those places. Like police and prosecutors, Lewis supported additional treatment and intervention programs for first-time offenders.
“Some of the things we have done in past years may have had unintended consequences,” Whitmire said after the hearing. “We need a state system that isn’t a patchwork like it seems to be now.”
John Whitmire head of cites patch-work of laws