The Vanishing Crime of DUI

Posted by Keith Hall | Jul 16, 2015 | 0 Comments

The Vanishing Crime Of DUI - How Technology Will End this Problem

As much as politicians, news media, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), schools, and law enforcement have tried to reduce the incidence of drunk driving, it is likely that nothing will do more to end the practice than technology.

DUI charges are being filed less frequently as time goes by, but there has been a huge dip in the number of filings since approximately 2010, to date.

For purposes of this blog, we will combine DUI and physical control charges, and refer to them as DUI cases.  Physical Control carries the same penalties as DUI, and is the charge that prosecutors bring when there is no evidence of driving sufficient to support a DUI charge.  Most of the time we see physical control charged when someone is alleged to be intoxicated while sitting in the driver's seat with the keys in the car and the engine running.  Often when they have pulled over to sleep, passed out at an intersection, are encountered in a parking lot, or something similar.  

The great majority of DUI cases in Washington are charged in our courts of limited jurisdiction.  These courts comprise district and municipal courts throughout the state, and are the court of choice for filing DUI charges by prosecutors.  These courts can handle misdemeanor or gross misdemeanor charges that carry a maximum sentence of 90/364 days respectively.  DUI is almost always a gross misdemeanor except in cases where someone had many prior offenses, or when they previously have been convicted of vehicular assault or homicide.  

If someone is arrested by a municipal/city police officer, their case will normally be filed in the municipal or city court.  If someone is arrested by a state or county entity, like the county sheriff or state patrol, their case will be charged in a district court for that same county.  

In 2003 there were a total of 43,950 DUI cases filed in these courts.  The numbers stayed fairly similar for many years, decreasing to 41,569 in 2007.  After 2007 the number of prosecutions dropped drastically, to the point that in 2012 there were only 34,701 cases filed.  In 2014 there were only 28,588 DUI cases filed and in 2015 to date, we are on track to only have 27,238 cases filed for the year given the statistics from January to May.  From 2003 to 2015 DUI prosecutions dropped approximately 38%. 

What could cause such a decrease?  I would suggest that the proliferation of anti drunk driving devices has made it drastically more difficult for drunk drivers to continue to offend. 

Anecdotally, when I first began practicing law there was no technology that judges could impose to keep drivers from driving drunk.  The judge could take away their driving privileges, but this often just led to offenders who drove without a license.  Only the most hard core drinkers would either be held in jail on a high bail while their cases progressed, or would be required to take monitored Antabuse.  Antabuse is drug that produces very unpleasant side effects when combined with alcohol in the body, and was used to keep alcoholics from drinking.  The Antabuse measure had limited effectiveness, as a person could always find ways around them, such as drinking anyways in spite of the discomfort or figuring ways to avoid taking the pills.  I would suggest that over 99% of those who were charged with DUI were never required to take Antabuse. 

This all changed with the entrance of new technology in the form of both the Ignition Interlock Devices or IID device, and the Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitor or SCRAM device. 

The Ignition Interlock Device is an electronic device that can be wired into a person's car, and will not allow the person to start or operate the vehicle if they have been drinking.  The driver has to blow into a tube in which an alcohol testing device resides.  If they have been consuming alcohol the device will lock out the ignition system, so the vehicle cannot start.  The device also comes with a camera, and takes photographs of the person that is blowing into the device, to ensure that the person blowing into the device is the person required to have it.  In this way, situations where a non-monitored family member fails a breath test will not be used to incarcerate an alcohol prohibited driver, something we used to see frequently prior to the camera technology.  Additionally the device will randomly require retesting of drivers, so as to preclude one sober person from starting the vehicle while another drunk person takes the wheel and drives once started. 

The Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitor is a water-resistant ankle monitor that is worn on either leg, and can detect alcohol consumption via transdermal measurements taken throughout the day.  The device has tamper resistant features, and can report any alcohol consumption remotely to a monitoring court or agency. 

We often see even first time DUI offenders required to install an ignition interlock device on their automobile as soon as they are arraigned in a criminal case.  This is the first hearing that an accused drunk driver has after their arrest.  This device prevents the use of alcohol while driving, and likely prevents many persons from continuing to offend.  Prior to these devices, it was not uncommon for clients to receive multiple DUI offenses in a few week period.  Often the shame and stress of the first arrest would lead those persons inclined to alcoholism to self-medicate with more alcohol and end up with additional arrests. 

Those that have multiple DUI offenses, even those that are separated by many years or even decades, are often placed on the SCRAM device.  They are unable to consume any alcohol without the device notifying the court or agency monitoring the device.  The only way around this is to physically cut off the device, leading to incarceration for violating conditions of release set by the court.

When someone is convicted of a DUI, they face mandatory ignition interlock device installation in their car.  For a first offense of DUI, a person has to install the device for one year, five years for a second offense, and ten years for a third offense.  In some cases they will have to install the device even if their charge is reduced to some non-DUI type of charge such as reckless driving or negligent driving, for instance if they have prior offenses. 

It is my belief that these pre-trial monitoring conditions, as well as post conviction ignition interlock device requirements, have led to a substantial decrease in people charged with DUI since their adoption.

There are also several pieces of technology on the horizon that I believe will further reduce the incidence of DUI. 

The first is the goal of carmakers and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to include a version of breath or transdermal alcohol testing in new cars.  It may soon be possible to purchase these devices as options in new cars.  It is also possible that NHTSA will eventually require the technology in all new cars, as they have done with other safety technology such as airbags, anti-lock brakes, and electronic stability control.  NHTSA is already phasing in requirements like mandatory back-up cameras.  The trend seems to be offering this technology as options on luxury cars, the slow trickling down to mainstream brands, and then the mandatory implementation on all motor vehicles.  If all vehicles had these devices, it would be close to impossible for drunk drivers to be on the road.

The second piece of technology that may make drunk driving a thing of the past,  is self-driving cars.  Essentially this technology would turn all of our vehicles into taxicabs, where a person who had too much to drink could simply ride in the vehicle to their destination.  These self driving cars are already on the road today, having logged millions of miles.  As of today, there are four states that have authorized self-driving cars:  California, Nevada, Florida, and Michigan.  Google has logged millions of miles on their self-driving cars, and plans on making them available to the public in the year 2020. 

About the Author

Keith Hall

Keith is our firm's lead criminal defense attorney.

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