Drum­beat of ar­rests shows ‘we haven’t won’ war on DWI

High-pro­file cases un­der­score is­sue, which may be af­fected by state mar­i­juana leg­is­la­tion

Albany Times Union (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - By Steve Hughes

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.

Mar­i­juana fac­tor

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.”

Lori Van Buren / times union

troy City Coun­cil Pres­i­dent Carmella man­tello, left, pleaded guilty to driv­ing while abil­ity im­paired in a dec. 26 in­ci­dent.

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