Insurance News

DWI plan’s details need work

Posted on: June 7, 2009

Pat Lykos knows how she sounds when she talks about the potential impact of her new plan to give first-offender drunken drivers a second chance.

“I sound like a missionary, don’t I?” the Harris County district attorney joked Wednesday during a visit with the Houston Chronicle editorial board.

Her comments certainly don’t resemble any I recall from her red-meat prosecutor predecessor. Or even those of your typical tough-on-crime Republican.

But why should Lykos willfully bind herself to party stereotypes and failing crime-fighting strategies simply because that’s the way it’s always been done?

Her outside-the-box idea to offer a misdemeanor diversion program to first-time offenders, not just for DWIs but for misdemeanor drug possession and small theft cases as well, is refreshing. The point is to reduce the number of repeat offenders, but, in the process, it could help unclog the courts and jails.

“Clearly, something has to be done because it’s a pandemic in Harris County,” Lykos said.

But the lack of details Lykos provided last week when she first announced her program was a little troubling.

“It has led to so much conversation,” Hope Rangel of Mothers Against Drunk Driving said about the program. “But it’s really no conversation. It’s questions. And nobody has the answers.”

Lykos said that’s because news broke a bit prematurely. She and former Judge Roger Bridgwater, who would be heading up the program, told the editorial board it could be another month before it’s fully designed, and August before the first part is implemented.

On Wednesday, they provided some preliminary answers to several burning questions:

• How do they expect it to work? To avoid a formal, record-staining conviction, the offender would sign a contract pleading guilty to the offense, waiving rights to a jury trial and appeals, and agreeing to meet certain conditions. Those could include alcohol treatment and a mandatory breath alcohol ignition interlock device in his or her car for at least six months, for which the offender would pay. Completion of the program could take up to two years. Those who reject the deal could see prosecutors argue for harsher sentences, Lykos said.

• Will the DA’s Office use discretion in who can take part? Yes, after considering the evidence and conducting drug and alcohol screens (paid for by the offender), vetting, and background checks to make sure the person is a “true first offender,” meaning no record for any offense. But Lykos noted that discretion won’t be abused: “It’s going to be uniformly applied so it’s not just given to certain favored people who have certain favored lawyers.”

• If the program helps avoid that first-time conviction, what’s to keep someone from becoming a repeat first-offender? Lykos said records on program participants will be public, to be considered for any future offenses in Harris or other counties, and available in the Harris County crime database, as well as ones maintained by the Texas Department of Public Safety and the FBI. Bridgwater noted that the required guilty plea would help ensure that enhanced penalties could be assessed for future offenses. But, he said, if the person is caught driving drunk again, that second offense would be treated as the first.

Lykos was harshly critical of some other counties that allow DWI offenders to plead to lesser charges and was careful to differentiate her idea, saying, “We’re not going to engage in any fraud as they do in other counties by calling a DWI something else.”

Bexar County, for example, has a 1-year-old program that, under certain specific conditions, allows drunken drivers to plead to “obstruction of a highway — intoxication.”

But Lykos’ own program is far from thoroughly thought-out. A new district attorney launching a controversial program should probably be a little more prepared before going public.

It was clear in Wednesday’s meeting, which, to be fair, was hastily called, that she and Bridgwater are still on different pages on some things. At one point, he suggested offenders in the program could be fitted with a device that would monitor alcohol consumption at all times, suggesting that the program may prohibit some offenders from simply enjoying a beer at home.

After a flurry of questions, Lykos backed away from the idea. “I’m not Carrie Nation,” she declared, referring to the hatchet-wielding temperance leader.

Then, after a few more inquiries from journalists, preoccupied by the apparent affront to Texans’ beer rights, Lykos said: “Could we forget we even talked about having a beer at home? Let’s take that off the table right now.”

With a laugh, she added, “I wish I had a Jack and Coke right now.”

Bridgwater piped up protectively, “She’s not driving.”

Copyright © 2009 The Houston Chronicle

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