Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Turning drunk driving into a money-making enterprise

A former state district judge from McLennan County, David Hodges, has joined the growing chorus of reasonable minds that believe the costs of the Texas DPS' Driver Responsibility Program are greater than its benefits. Mr. Hodges argues that court dockets are backlogged with DWI cases that are tried, in large measure, because of the steep surcharges assessed by the DPS. He's also upset that some counties are trying to reduce their drunk driving docket by offering pleas to charges such as obstructing a highway and reckless driving (not that I have a problem with it).

Mr. Hodges' theory is that a good number of motorists charged with drunk driving would be more than willing to plead guilty to DWI if it didn't mean staring at a $3,000 charge from the DPS. Now I think the stigma of a criminal conviction plays a large role in this backlog. After all, DWI is the one crime that almost anyone can be charged with (sorry about the dangling participle, but I'll be damned if I can think of a better way to word the sentence). I've often told clients to look around the courtroom and find someone who doesn't belong -- that person's probably charged with drunk driving.
"Our criminal justice system is supposed to be about changing behavior and making our streets safer, but there is no evidence that this program is making our streets safer." -- David Hodges, judicial liaison for the Texas Center for the Judiciary.
The Driver Responsibility Program was sold as a way of providing additional funding to regional trauma centers who, as the story goes, expend a mountain of resources treating people injured as a result of someone's bad driving. Surprisingly enough, the trauma centers have yet to receive the amount of funding they were promised when the program was instituted.

There are currently 1.2 million Texans who haven't paid their surcharges and are risking arrest every time they get behind the wheel . The balance due? Over a billion dollars.

At the same time that the state legislature has restricted the constitutional rights of motorists in Texas, legislators have been working to make DWI prosecutions into a profit-making activity. After all, who wouldn't trade off 4th, 5th and 6th amendment rights for the promise of $3,000 plus reinstatement fees?

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