Friday, July 9, 2010

Sometimes the cure can be worse than the ailment

The powers of the government of the State of Texas shall be divided into three distinct departments, each of which shall be confided to a separate body of magistracy; to wit: Those which are legislative to one, those which are executive to another, and those which are judicial to another; and no person, or collection of persons, being of one of these departments, shall exercise any power properly attached to either of the others, except in the instances herein expressly permitted. -- Texas Constitution, Art. II
Texas State Senator John Whitmire recognizes that there is something wrong with the manner in which Texas handles motorists accused of drunk driving. He understands that the surcharges imposed by the Department of Public Safety are onerous. He gets that motorists don't want a DWI conviction on their records because of the surcharges or because it may cost them their job.

What he doesn't get, apparently, is the separation of powers clause in the Texas Constitution. Sen. Whitmire is upset because different counties handle DWI cases differently. In Galveston County, it's not unusual for a motorist accused of drunk driving to plead guilty to obstruction of a highway. In Harris County, a person accused of DWI who has never been in trouble with the law before can enter the DIVERT program and (cross your fingers) have the matter expunged after completing their probation (more on this later). Get pulled over in Fort Bend County and if the case is not dismissed, plead guilty or go to trial.

Sen. Whitmire wants to put together a "working group" to figure out how to ensure that DWI's are handled the same across the state. No word on whether that working group will include defense attorneys or not.

My question, however, is who cares if Tom Green County treats first-time DWI's one way, Cameron County treats them another way and Jefferson County treats them a different way. No one questions why for so long capital crimes were handled one way in Harris County and, seemingly, another way across the rest of the Lone Star State. No one seems concerned that every county has a different policy toward pretrial diversion on nonviolent offenses such as shoplifting or possession of minor amounts of marijuana.

In Bexar County, District Attorney Susan Reed dealt with a backlog of cases by allowing first-time drunken-driving defendants who meet certain parameters to plead instead to a charge of "obstruction of a highway – intoxication." Defendants must undergo treatment and abide by conditions, including locks on their vehicles.
Reed said her goal was to get to offenders quickly and impose strict requirements because she believes that is the way to keep people from repeat drunken driving: "It's really got teeth in it for trying to stop the behavior." Besides avoiding the surcharge, she said, the absence of a formal DWI charge keeps people from possibly losing their jobs over the matter.
Whitmire voiced concern that allowing such a charge would hide a defendant's first drunken-driving offense, allowing him to avoid enhanced penalties if he offends again.
"We're losing a record of what that person's actual offense is," he said. -- Houston Chronicle (7/8/2010)

Allowing defendants to plead to a different charge? Really? C'mon, Senator, you are well aware that it happens every day in courthouses across this state and across the country. That's why it's called a plea bargain. Why the concern when it happens in a DWI case? The records will still indicate that the person was arrested and charged with driving while intoxicated regardless of what the person actually pleads to.

Here's an idea for you, Senator. Why not allow deferred adjudication for those accused of DWI? Even with a nondisclosure order, law enforcement (and prosecutors) will know about the prior arrest and can treat any subsequent offense accordingly. Allowing those accused of driving while intoxicated to clear their case without a conviction, without a license suspension and without the onerous DPS surcharges can move dockets -- if judicial economy is what we're really concerned about.

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