7/30/2008Judges Taught to Help Prosecutors in DUI Cases
State court association and NHTSA join together to promote judicial activism in DUI cases.
While most Americans might believe judges are expected to consider all cases with equal impartiality, a prominent judicial standards organization suggests courts should treat differently any case involving driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI). Former Chief Justice of the United States Warren E. Burger founded the National Center for State Courts in 1971 to provide educational services for members of the judiciary. The group is now working in concert with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to promote "efficient disposal of traffic cases."
The center opened a website covering "The Court's Role in Reducing the Incidence of Impaired Driving" as a well-documented multimedia resource. It urges lower court judges to adopt advocacy or "problem solving" roles.
"Traffic safety is an important public issue, and there is no reason for judges not to participate in, if not lead, a dialogue on the topic," the website instructs. "Judges may, for example, meet with representatives from law enforcement, prosecutors, public defenders, and advocacy groups if done in a criminal-justice coordinating council where general policy issues, not specific cases, are discussed. They could participate as well in meetings organized by other branches, such as the Governor's Office of Highway and Traffic Safety."
The site acknowledges that this advocacy role is heightened when drunk driving is alleged.
"In DWI cases, courts can have a much broader role than in many other types of cases," the site teaches. "Through its interaction with law enforcement, prosecutors, defense attorneys, defendants, the public, and the press, the court establishes a tone toward DWI cases in the community. This is evident when the court... explains to law enforcement procedural shortcomings following unsuccessfully prosecuted cases."
Leading California DUI legal expert Lawrence Taylor, author of DUI Blog, believes the National Center for State Courts has crossed the line into improper conduct.
"I guess high conviction rates, draconian sentences and turning a blind eye to constitutional violations helps establish that tone," Taylor wrote. "After 39 years of practice, I can still remember when judges were supposed to be impartial, even in drunk driving cases."
The center's website does caution judges not to go too far.
"A partnership with law enforcement is a necessity for problem-solving courts.... Coordination on such matters as a concentrated enforcement event, like a saturation patrol, is useful so courts can be prepared for an increase in caseload. Any partnership must be careful to avoid the perception that courts are another agency of enforcement and ensure that courts retain their role as neutral arbiter."
Impartiality is essential when sober motorists end up falsely accused of DUI and receive no compensation for legal expenses if found innocent, as has happened in Arizona, Oregon, Washington DC, Florida, Maine and Texas. Other individuals have been convicted by judges of "driving under the influence" without any automobiles involved. In Virginia, a man was convicted for riding a lawnmower while drunk, a Georgia woman for riding a horse, a North Carolina man for riding a scooter and a New Jersey man for riding a toy mini-motorcycle. Courts in New Jersey and Minnesota insist you can be arrested for driving under the influence in a parked car, while those in Arizona recently disagreed.
NHTSA confirmed the effort to apply DUI standards to incidents that do not involve drunk driving. It created an advertising campaign in 2005 specifically targeted drivers who were not drunk, but had consumed "a small amount of alcohol."
These efforts can generate a tremendous amount of revenue for cities and police officers. A Houston, Texas police officer was paid $172,576 in 2005 primarily by earning overtime on a DUI task force. That same year, Albuquerque, New Mexico generated $1 million from DUI seizures and fines.