Texas Legislators Faced With "Broken" Drunken Driving System

The Texas Legislature has begun work on repairing the state's drunken driving laws, as the current system is breaking down, with too many cases swamping the courts, and offenders receiving little or no treatment.

A recent Dallas Morning Tribune story noted that Texas leads the nation in alcohol-related traffic accident deaths with 1,269 in 2009, almost 10 percent of all DWI deaths nationwide.

Vehicular Assault Teams and No-Refusal Weekends

One attempt to reduce the number of drunk drivers is the use of narrowly focused programs. Various Texas counties such as Harris have established Vehicular Assault Teams (VATs) to specifically target drunken driving. These teams have been used for "No-Refusal Weekends" when prosecutors and police work in concert to obtain warrants for blood tests as soon as a suspect is brought into the police station.

The No-Refusal Weekend allows an officer to bring a suspected drunken driver in for booking if he or she refuses a breath test. A prosecutor is waiting at the police station to complete a warrant and immediately fax it to a judge on call, who reviews the warrant, signs and faxes it back to the police station. A nurse then is authorized to take a blood sample, handing it off to a police officer responsible for maintaining the integrity of the sample and chain of custody.

The close integration of the team is meant to ensure that all the proper police procedures are followed, the suspect's rights are protected, the evidence is obtained legally and the case is ready for trial if the defendant contests the charge.

The Need for Treatment

While the No-Refusal Weekend helps police and prosecutors build effective cases against defendants, it still doesn't address the larger issue of insuring drunken drivers receive the treatment necessary to prevent them from simply completing their sentences and then returning to their old habits of driving drunk.

Moreover, the more aggressive enforcement and prosecution has backlogged the courts, with 125,000 cases on court dockets. The backlog is in part a result of the strict DWI penalties that have been enacted over the years by the legislature.

When plea agreements and treatment options are made difficult or impossible to obtain, defendants decide to take their chances with juries, driving the courts' dockets to the breaking point, forcing prosecution costs ever higher and resulting in some drivers who should be in treatment receiving acquittals and getting back on the roads.

Judges testified to the legislature that they have to withdraw charges to get willing offenders into successful alcoholism-treatment programs. "This is a broken system," said committee chair Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston.

Checkpoints

In testimony before the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, members of the Texas State Highway Patrol argued for more highway checkpoints. The Patrol noted that the checkpoints are a valuable deterrent and the surrounding publicity influences drivers to change their behavior, including increased use of designated drivers.

The Texas Legislature has been wary of permitting law enforcement to use DWI checkpoints, in use in 39 other states, as infringing on the liberty of innocent drivers.

The checkpoints require that all drivers on a selected road stop for interrogation and videotaping by the highway patrol or other law-enforcement agencies. Drivers are asked a few questions and those who exhibit signs of intoxication are subjected to additional field sobriety tests and may be requested to take breath tests.

Sen. Whitmire said the committee would continue to meet with law enforcement, judges, district attorneys, victims groups and others looking for better ways to prevent drunk driving, apply appropriate punishment and treat offenders in addiction programs.

The Budget Problem

The challenges are great. Texas faces an $18 billion deficit and Gov. Rick Perry has instructed all departments of state government to identify areas for 5 percent cuts. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) has listed $7.8 million to be cut from treatment programs, which would eliminate treatment for 1,346 offenders.

The TDCJ had been projecting the need for 10,000 treatment beds within its system. In 2007, when the Legislature increased funding from $36 million to $97 million, it added a 600-bed facility exclusively for treatment. The TDCJ attributes the decline in the rate of increase to the effectiveness of the treatment programs. An offender who successfully completes treatment is much less likely to reoffend and return to the criminal justice system.

With the current budget crises, these gains are in jeopardy, as legislators look to reduce spending from all areas of state government. The price of drunken driving cannot simply be measured by the cost of law enforcement, prosecution, prison or treatment programs. The cost is borne by real people whose lives have been marked by drunk drivers, from crippling, life-long injuries to the deaths of family members.

A Sobering Example

The Dallas Morning News recently highlighted the case of John Patrick Barton, who, while on parole for a third DWI conviction, drove through an intersection in Lewisville, killing Kandace Hull, 33, and her daughter Autumn Caudle, 13, and injuring Hull's husband and their two other children.

Barton had been through TDCJ prisons twice, and both times had received no treatment for his alcoholism. It was clearly foreseeable that he could reoffend and drive drunk. The fact he received no treatment during his incarceration hangs heavily over the criminal justice system. How was public safety furthered by merely warehousing someone like Barton? Kandace Hull and her daughter answer that question by their permanent silence.

Texas legislators have many hard questions to face as they attempt to overhaul the criminal justice system's handling of drunken drivers. What changes will be made remain unknown at present, but clearly a systematic restructuring of the way these drivers are treated is needed. If you have been involved in a crash with a drunken driver, contact a knowledgeable attorney to discuss your case.

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