Drumbeat of arrests shows ‘we haven’t won’ war on DWI
High-profile cases underscore issue, which may be affected by state marijuana legislation
Every year, ceremonies are held to remember victims of fatal drunken driving crashes.
Every year, the message is the same: don’t drink and drive.
And every year, thousands of Capital Region residents are charged with driving while intoxicated.
“We haven’t won the war on DWI,” said Mary Tanner-ritcher, the bureau chief for vehicular crimes at the Albany County district attorney’s office.
Recent high-profile drunken driving cases, including Troy City Council President Carmella Mantello, highlight the fact that many drivers still choose to drink before driving despite decades of prevention efforts.
Mantello pleaded guilty to driving while ability impaired after State Police said she followed another driver from Interstate 890 to Route 146 in Clifton Park on Dec. 26. Sheila Mcbain, a state Office of Children and Family Services official, pleaded not guilty to driving while intoxicated after Colonie police said she crashed her car on Dec. 30 and fled the scene. Fort Plain’s mayor was also accused of DWI last month in Guilderland.
State and federal governments have spent millions on DWI prevention, from TV advertising campaigns to funds for extra law enforcement efforts and checkpoints around holidays as well as driver education requirements. Those efforts have paid off to a certain extent.
What statistics say
The number of misdemeanor drunken driving arrests in the four-county Capital Region has decreased in the past decade, from 2,901 in 2008 to 2,541 in 2017, according to data from the state Department of Criminal Justice Services.
The Capital Region’s DWI numbers reflect national figures, which show a sharp decline in the number of both drunken-driving arrests and fatalities in the U.S. Deaths caused by drunken driving in the past 10 years have declined by 20 percent from 13,041 in 2007 to 10,497 in 2016, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
But there has been an increase in felony drunken driving cases and an increase in drugged driving cases.
Felony drunken driving cases — those involving repeat offenders or those who have children in the car — have slightly increased in the Capital Region. In 2008 there were 404 felony arrests in the four-county area. That number rose to 428 in 2017, state numbers show.
The increase in local felony DWI arrests goes against statewide trends, where felony DWIS have dropped from 6,501 in 2008 to 5,521 in 2017.
Under state law, drunken driving is a felony if a driver has a previous DWI conviction in the last 10 years.
Tanner-ritcher said her bureau has made it a point to hold repeat offenders accountable by not offering misdemeanor plea deals to those with multiple drunken-driving offenses.
The increase in felony arrests may be partly due to the passage of Leandra’s Law in 2009, which makes it a felony if a driver is drunk with children in the vehicle, even if it is their first offense.
With New York moving toward legalizing recreational marijuana for adult use there are concerns that the downward trend could be reversed.
Most of the local drugged driving cases tend to involve marijuana but Tanner-ritcher said that in the Capital Region it’s also common to see drivers who have consumed alcohol and benzodiazepines, such as Xanax.
Last month, the Albany County district attorney’s office made a policy change in preparation for an increase in druggeddriving cases if marijuana is legalized. Drivers charged with driving under the influence of drugs will not be able to plead down to a driving while ability impaired charge, which is a violation rather than a misdemeanor.
But that change won’t be enough, Tanner-ritcher said. Instead, she and others are pushing for more funds, training for law enforcement and education.
One push may include more training for patrol officers in advanced roadside impaired driving enforcement, which encourages officers to make additional observations and ask questions to help them determine if a driver is impaired.
That training is a variant of drug recognition expert training, a more intensive form of training for officers to detect when drivers are impaired by drugs.
Another strategy will be reinforcing the warning
to drivers that no level of marijuana is safe when it comes to driving, Tannerritcher said.
“You’re just as dangerous on the road and we will prosecute those,” she said.
Earlier this month she and other prosecutors attended a panel at Molloy College on Long Island that included prosecutors from states where recreational marijuana is already legal.
The fear is that the state’s law enforcement agencies aren’t ready for an influx of drugged driving cases. That preparation will take a lot of time and a lot of money, and as of now there is no clear plan for how the state will pay for or prepare for legalization, she said.
Even before the state decides how it will legalize marijuana, there are more options for those looking for the drug.
Massachusetts opened its third store to sell recreational marijuana products on Friday in Great Barrington, an hour’s drive from Albany.
Rensselaer County Sheriff Patrick Russo said his office hasn’t had any incidents that he is aware of where a driver has gone to Massachusetts and consumed marijuana before driving back to New York.
“It’s early to see that,” he said. “But we are aware of the possibility.”
Russo urges caution as the State Legislature is expected to tackle the issue of legalization in this session.
Russo said he doesn’t see any reason to give people another drug they can use after the state has spent years trying to drive down DWI levels.
“I hope it doesn’t pass,” he said. “A DWI can ruin your life.”
troy City Council President Carmella mantello, left, pleaded guilty to driving while ability impaired in a dec. 26 incident.