Do DWI laws need re­hab?

Sen­a­tors look­ing scrap­ping sur­charges, adding treat­ment

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Mike Ward

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

the coun­try.

“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

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