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Drunken-driving charges under many influences

Extra law enforcement patrols are often on the road to crack down on drunken driving, but frequently the charge of driving under the influence is reduced as cases play out in court.

Court records show 56 percent of DUI charges – or 310 charges out of 553 – were reduced in Spokane County from September 2011 through February 2012. In October alone, 65 of 102 charges were reduced, or 64 percent. That doesn’t include DUIs that were deferred or dismissed.

For law enforcement, “it can be frustrating,” said Spokane police Officer Ben Green. “But we’re just one piece of the justice system.”

Most DUI charges are reduced to reckless driving, reckless endangerment or first-degree negligent driving. Defendants often agree to plead guilty to a reduced charge to avoid a verdict by trial, and some prosecutors reduce charges to help lighten workloads. Evidence and prior charges are also big factors in the outcome.

Although on paper the charge is reduced, the penalty is similar to that for driving under the influence, said Brian O’Brien, District Court supervisor for the Spokane County prosecutor’s office.

“If you look at what the sentences are, they are being held accountable,” O’Brien said.

But advocates for victims of drunken drivers say reducing the charges sends the wrong message, even if the penalties are much the same. Stacey Rhodes, a Mothers Against Drunk Driving spokeswoman, believes that should never happen.

“If you’ve been irresponsible and you drink and drive, then when you’re pulled over and arrested for a DUI, that charge should stick,” Rhodes said. “The charge is what it is.”

In the courts

A number of factors play into the outcome of the complicated cases.

Evidence, such as whether a person took a breath test, any previous offenses, the level of intoxication at the time of arrest, and even the court’s caseload can determine what a defendant is sentenced for.

Budget cuts and staff reductions mean prosecuting attorneys handling DUI cases have a heavier workload now.

“I have three people,” O’Brien said. “Each one of my people has about 500 DUI cases a year. That’s more than two a day each, every day.”

O’Brien said he is trying to get more blood tests in DUI cases where a driver refuses to take a breath test, to aid in prosecution.

In an effort to prosecute DUIs more effectively, the Washington Traffic Safety Commission pays for traffic safety resource prosecutors who can help handle the complicated cases. There are two in Seattle and one in Spokane.

“We fund this program in order to provide training and resources to prosecutors on DUI,” said Shelly Baldwin, program coordinator with the state Traffic Safety Commission. “If a prosecutor is going into a case and all of a sudden the defense throws a motion at them they’re unfamiliar with … they can call the TSRP and ask about it. We try through this program to provide some resources to prosecutors to help level that field a little bit, equal it out between the defense and prosecution.”

“We want to avoid trial,” said Dallas Cooney, a local DUI defense attorney. “So we want to find ways to attack the case before it goes to trial.”

Sometimes, he said, that means taking a plea deal for a reduced charge.

On the roads

In Washington, nearly 40,000 people are arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence each year, Baldwin said. Of those, about a third are repeat offenders.

“That number has been pretty consistent over the past 10 years,” Baldwin said.

Driving while intoxicated is the leading cause of traffic fatalities in Washington.

The “Drive Hammered, Get Nailed” campaign, or some version of it, has been in place since 2002. Law enforcement conducted a statewide DUI emphasis March 9-18 in Washington, including Spokane County. Each emphasis, funded by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, nets about 400 extra DUI arrests statewide, Baldwin said.

“The reason we do this is not about more DUI arrests; it’s about fewer fatality crashes on our roadways caused by people drinking and driving,” she said. “My dream campaign would be to have lots of officers out there and no one to arrest. That’s why we advertise it.”

Criminal charges

All criminal charges carry the possibility of jail time, fines and probation. DUI, reckless driving, reckless endangerment and first-degree negligent driving are all criminal charges.

“Folks can still go to jail, be required to attend alcohol/drug treatment and be required to complete many other conditions of probation,” Cooney wrote in an email. “This is true even if a DUI is amended.”

What’s more, a conviction for DUI or a reduced charge counts as a prior offense for seven to 10 years, which leads to tougher penalties – additional jail time, house arrest, fines or loss of a license to drive – for subsequent DUI convictions.

“There’s really not that much difference,” said O’Brien, the deputy prosecutor. Reduced charges “count as priors, too.”

The penalties

Anyone who refuses to take a breath test will automatically lose their license for a year, regardless of the court outcome. This is because of Washington’s Implied Consent Law, which means a person who drives in Washington automatically gives consent to have their breath or blood tested if arrested on suspicion of DUI.

But there are some differences between DUIs, which are gross misdemeanors, and the reduced charges, which are misdemeanors.

Unlike DUIs, reduced charges generally can be vacated after a few years, Cooney said. Once a reduced charge is vacated, the driver is no longer required to disclose the offense to potential employers. Further, he said, a DUI conviction will often prohibit a driver from traveling into Canada because of its tougher DUI laws, but convictions on reduced charges generally will not.

The licensing penalties levied for reduced charges typically aren’t as stiff, although the outcome depends on both the court case and the Department of Licensing hearing, which are independent of one another.

The differing charges also impact whether a driver is required to install an ignition interlock device, which a driver blows into to test blood alcohol content before the vehicle can be started.

Unlike a DUI, a first-offense conviction of a reduced charge does not carry a requirement for the device, but subsequent offenses will. DUI and reckless-driving convictions come with a loss of license and a requirement for high-risk insurance, called SR-22, but other reduced charges do not.

SR-22 is usually costly and varies depending on the driver’s age, sex, location and driving record.

“All those factor in on what you’re going to pay,” said Ben Schultz with Serenity Insurance. “There’s really no average, per se.”