Although a recent report shows Louisiana has one of the lowest DWI conviction rates in the country, local prosecutors say the numbers don’t tell the whole story.
While monitoring court cases in 16 parishes, Mothers Against Drunk Driving found only 37 percent of drunken driving cases in Louisiana end with a conviction for the original charge. The national average is 61 percent, the organization said.
Sixty-two percent of the DWIs are either dismissed, deferred or changed. Only 1 percent was found not guilty, according to the report.
The study says 35 percent of DWI offenders participated in a diversion program that allowed them to plead guilty to a lesser charge with an opportunity to expunge the DWI from their records.
MADD monitored 100,000 cases as part of its nationwide Court Monitoring Program. The organization trains staff and volunteers to attend court cases involving drunken drivers to “ensure laws are being enforced and prosecuted to the fullest extent,” said Asheba Brown, program manager of MADD Louisiana’s state office.
“Putting monitors inside courtrooms helps MADD understand what happens to drunk driving cases and how we can help strengthen laws to better protect the public from this preventable crime,” Brown said. “For example, MADD strongly supports the use of ignition interlocks as part of deferred adjudication to make sure drunk drivers are truly changing their behavior while getting a second chance with their criminal record. The fact that 35 percent of Louisiana drunk driving cases are deferred convinces us that a law requiring these in-car Breathalyzers as part of deferred adjudication is needed in our state.”
The report also shows that 34 percent of drunken drivers had a blood-alcohol level above .15 percent and three out of 10 impaired motorists had almost double the legal limit of .08 percent.
Despite the low conviction rate in MADD’s report, Terrebonne and Lafourche district attorneys said numbers can be misleading.
There are multiple variables when it comes to prosecuting a DWI case, said Lafourche First Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Richard. Each case is unique and isn’t black or white, Richard said.
“Each set of facts stand on their own,” Richard said. “These kinds of reports don’t always give you the whole picture. They don’t always give you all the facts about every single case. We don’t treat every single DWI that comes through our office the same. Every one of them has its own set of facts and circumstances.”
For example, a DWI case involving a serious bodily injury isn’t prosecuted the same way as a DWI case with no injuries, Richard said.
“We put people through diversion programs,” Richard said. “Our program has many components like community service work. They have to go to a MADD panel, they have to potentially do substance abuse treatment and get an evaluation. The program is very rigorous, and we have very strict conditions you have to do. If you don’t complete the program we file the charges and prosecute it. We look at every case on its own set of facts to determine the best outcome, not only to punish but to prevent when possible. We’re dealing with people with real lives and families.”
Lafourche offers Drug Court for suspects charged with third or fourth DWIs, which are felonies with mandatory jail sentences, Richard said.
“The jail sentences cannot be suspended unless you enter into a Drug Court program,” Richard said. “The law allows for a suspension of all the jail time if you complete the Drug Court program. It’s a great tool for them because by the time they have a third or fourth DWI they have a problem that needs to be addressed. We’re using Drug Court as a tool to combat DWIs.”
In addition to multiple programs, local law enforcement agencies play an integral role in combating DWIs, Richard said.
The Thibodaux Police Department made a total of 36 DWI arrests in 2018. The Lafourche Parish Sheriff’s Office charged 223 people with DWI last year, and there were 641 DWI arrests in Terrebonne including Houma. State Police made a total of 948 DWI-related arrests last year.
“We rely on our officers, and they do a great job of stopping DWIs,” Richard said.
MADD’s state court monitoring program is active in Avoyelles, Bossier, Caddo, East Baton Rouge, Iberville, Jefferson, Lafayette, Lincoln, Livingston, Natchitoches, Ouachita, Rapides, St Charles, St Tammany, Tangipahoa and West Baton Rouge parishes.
Parishes are rotated every year to conduct the study, Brown said.
“Placing monitors in courtrooms helps us identify weaknesses so we can communicate our findings to prosecutors and judges,” said MADD National President Helen Witty. “We use the data to tell the story of how drunk driving cases are being handled, and we can tell who takes them seriously. We believe this important work will help improve the conviction rates of drunk drivers and, finally, help us put an end to this violent crime.”
-- Daily Comet Staff Writer Dan Copp can be reached at 448-7639 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @DanVCopp.
Posted on Tue, July 16, 2019
by By Dan Copp Daily Comet Staff Writer