DRUNK DRIVER GETS OFF WITH A DAY IN JAIL

Many people get indignant when they read that some idiot drove drunk and then at sentencing was ordered to spend a mere night in jail, or two nights if they blew especially high for blood alcohol content.  I can understand that, but I also believe that few people are aware of all the aspects of a criminal sentence beyond the upfront jail time.  The devil is in the details, as the saying goes. Let me share with you a fairly typical first-time DUI (driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs) sentence in my community.   I am not talking here about other crimes such as vehicular assault, drug crimes, or vehicular homicide.  Just good old-fashioned “drunk driving”.

For someone convicted of DUI, the minimum sentence is one day (overnight) in jail and a fine of 850 dollars, along with other court costs and conditions.  The maximum by law is a year in jail and a 5000 dollar fine.  Additional mandatory fees include 200 dollars for the breathalyzer test, and another couple hundred in court costs to help fund the criminal justice system.  So at least around 1200 bucks or so.

On a typical first-time DUI case, where no one was badly injured, there was not an extensive amount of property damage, the person did not try to flee, and there were no children in the car, to name just a few factors, the judge tends to start with the minimum penalties, along with the usual conditions, with the remainder of the sentence (both money and jail) suspended.  Please understand, however, that suspended does not mean it goes away.  Far from it.

So what does suspended sentence mean?  It means something quite ominous to the typical erring human, actually.  The rest of the whole year of potential jail time and the remainder of the 5000 fine is literally hanging over your head for five long years.   If you fall behind in the payments, you can be sanctioned.  If you violate any of the conditions, you can be sanctioned.  If you miss a court hearing, you can be sanctioned.  So in effect, the jail time and further fines and sanctions can be sprinkled out upon you over a five year period, long after you forget why you drank and drove, and perhaps even years into your sobriety.  There is a saying that something can come back and “bite you in the butt” and it seems to me that a DUI suspended sentence has a hard potential bite.  As it should, to the degree that such a bite promotes safety and sobriety.

Each time you fail to comply with any one of the myriad conditions, you get called back into court and you can end up with some days of jail,  additional monetary fines, or additional punishment, such as work crew.  Work crew is where you get picked up at a set location at the crack of dawn and ride along in a van with other convicts to perform labor such as cleaning up litter, weeding in a park, and such.  Although all useful work is honorable, some people don’t fancy being spotted by friends and colleagues wearing a bright orange work crew vest and picking up garbage downtown.  So let’s go over the “usual conditions” that you have to comply with to avoid such sanctions during your five years of probation on the DUI case.

Where to begin?  Further conditions include, but are not limited to, having zero new criminal law violations of any kind.  So if you get a traffic ticket and your license is suspended for non-payment, and you then drive with a suspended license, that is a new independent crime, with its own set of sanctions.  But it is also a violation of the conditions of your DUI, so it will also bring you back into court on your old DUI to face punishment for having a new criminal law violation.  The new crime does not have to be alcohol or drug related at all.  You could  get into a fistfight (assault) or keep calling your ex (telephone harassment), or commit any number of lesser or greater crimes, and all of that will increase your punishment for your DUI long after your original sentencing.  Years after, even.

An expensive condition that many people fail due to lack of money or other limitations is sobriety treatment.  As a condition of being convicted of a DUI, you will be court-ordered to obtain a chemical dependency evaluation, and (here is the clincher) follow the recommendations.  That means if the drug and alcohol counselor writes in her report that you need two years of treatment (the most common finding in my experience) then you have to pay for and attend two years of treatment, usually at the agency who decided how much treatment you need.  This may include inpatient, intensive out-patient, individual and group therapy, and several AA type (sober support) meetings per week (on top of the treatment at the state-approved agency).  And if you miss any meetings, seem to have a bad attitude, or fail to provide proof of your AA meetings, the agency writes your probation officer.  Your probation officer writes the court.  The court calls you in for a hearing.  You get additional sanctions.  Did I mention that treatment can cost thousands?

There is also a one-day workshop required for all DUI cases, called Victim’s Panel.  It is a presented by a group of volunteers who have been impacted by DUI drivers.  Some have lost a family member.  Some may have become disabled.  Some were traumatized by being hit and injured out of the blue.  This panel of speakers tries to reach the emotional side of the crime, similar to the John’s Class which I describe in detail in an earlier post.  For Victim’s Panel, you spend a day sitting in a room with people who have been deeply wounded by someone like you – someone who did what you did.  Enjoy!  As Mothers Against Drunk Driving state, the workshop is “to show offenders first-hand the trauma, physical pain, emotional suffering and devastation, financial loss, anger, and frustration that is commonly experienced by innocent victims and their family members because of a DUI-related crash”.

While you are doing all this and paying for it all, missing days at work with your life turned upside down, and getting zero pity because you are a stupidass drunk, don’t forget to let the court know each time you move.  Because the court needs to be able to reach you to call you in for hearings throughout the five year period.  So you have a requirement to report any change of contact information within 24 hours of a move.  This prevents people from coming in and claiming the never got a hearing notice.  It is the convict’s job to keep in touch with the court.  If in fact the person is AWOL (another acronym – absent without leave, meaning the court cannot find you) then the time of absence is NOT included in the five years.  If you were gone for ten years after only one year of probation, once the court finds you again, their probation clock start ticking anew and you will still have four years probation left.  And by the way, if you do miss a hearing, a warrant will be issued for your arrest.

On the financial side,  the court can require restitution as part of a criminal case.  Criminal cases have punishments galore, but do not necessarily include making the perpetrator “pay back” the victim.  For example, if someone hits my car, the usual procedure, if I cannot settle it via the insurance, is to sue them in civil court and get a judgment and then try to enforce the judgment by attaching their property, garnishing their wages, etc.  In cases where the court orders restitution in a criminal case, one of the conditions of probation is to pay restitution to the victims, so what would usually be a civil case is rolled into the criminal case.  In car accidents, the restitution amount can be a thousand or so for hitting a parked car or a telephone poll, up to any number of thousands if there were medical bills or hospitalization.

I remember a case where a defense attorney asked a client why he hadn’t just paid the restitution to be free of it, instead of coming up on all these review hearings and getting further jail time, when it was 137 dollars, and the young man explained that it was 137 thousand dollars, not dollars.  To wit, $137,000.  In his case, the lawyer at that time had allowed him to plead guilty with an open-ended (to be determined) amount of restitution, and it turned out that someone was badly injured and had surgery on a leg.  Did I mention that many drivers do not have insurance?  Apparently beer is cheaper than car insurance, and it sure tastes better.  Until you have an accident, and then the taste is highly bitter.  It ends up tasting a lot like regret.

Does this seem like a lot of conditions?  Are you getting the picture that the one day of jail is not the whole story?  But wait, there’s more! We are not done with conditions yet.  Here is another one.  You may only drive with a valid license and insurance.  And good luck with the new cost of paying high-risk insurance along with all your court costs and restitution and treatment.  More likely than not, welcome to my world of taking the bus.  You also lose any commercial driver’s license you have, so you are barred from driving any commercial vehicle such as a taxi, truck, or any work vehicle with a commercial license.

Another condition.  How would you like to breathe into a breathalyzer every time you want to start your car?  It may also be set to go off a few more times while you are driving along.  How would you like to pay a couple hundred dollars to have it installed on any car you ever drive?  And once it is installed, you have the pleasure of continuing to pay for it at around 100 dollars a month for at least a year, and possibly longer.  Think about it.  You will pay a private company so they can try to catch you drinking and start the process to send you back to jail.  This is what you will do, that is, once you get the chance to apply and pay for a special ignition interlock license.

Before you can even get to the ignition interlock installation and ongoing fees, your driver’s license will be suspended for a period of 90 days if you had a low blood alcohol reading, or for a whole year if you blew a higher level or refused the test.  After the suspension, you get to pay yet another fee to have your license reinstated.  Before it will be reinstated, you have to file proof that you have purchased high-risk car insurance , which you will need to keep for at least three years, sometimes longer.  Even if the licensing department didn’t require it, you have a court order that you may not drive without valid insurance as a condition of your continued release.  And of course you will pay yet another fee to obtain the special ignition interlock device license.

Whether it is your first time or your tenth, anyone who is careless enough to drink and drive is considered to have an addiction problem that is out of control.  Because nobody in their right mind would drink and drive.  It is stupid and dangerous to barrel down the road in a couple thousand tons of metal, able to hit and kill people and cause life-changing harm.  If you ever, even once, drink and drive, you have a drinking problem, along with a serious lapse in judgment.  And please don’t bother me with an “everybody does it” argument – my answer to that is, you need to find new friends.  Very few people do it.  If your friend do it, you need new friends.  And if you do it, you have a problem.

Thus it is also quite common for the judge to order you to abstain completely from the use of alcohol (or drugs as appropriate) during the whole term of probation.  This means you may be required to call the probation department every single workday and listen to a recording that tells you a color, such as yellow.  If you are assigned yellow, and you hear yellow, you must go to the office that same day (likely during what you used to think of as your working hours) and pee in a cup.  Because it is random, you could come up two days in a row.  Failure to appear counts the same as a positive reading, and will cause you to be called back into court.  You will also likely have random UAs or urinalyses as part of your mandated treatment.  So drink a lot of water.  And be prepared to leave work early.

For cases where the judge is especially concerned about the high likelihood that you will fall back into drinking, there is a new wonder of technology called by its acronym SCRAM.  SCRAM is a Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitor.   No two interpreters that I know say it exactly the same, but the convicted driver soon finds out exactly what it entails.  The SCRAM  unit fits on your ankle and virtually sniffs your skin night and day, because alcohol is something that you exude from every pore in your body after drinking.  With this device (which you will wear 24/7 including in the shower and in bed) the unit very quickly signals to the monitoring agency that you have consumed alcohol, and the notification chain of events brings you back into court to face further sanctions for violating the terms of your probation.  Think you could get away with a just a couple of beers?  Think again.  The SCRAM unit is extremely sensitive to the point that users are counseled to avoid bodywashes with alcohol in them, and even some brands of cough medicine.

Feeling overwhelmed yet about how to follow all your conditions to avoid further jail time?  Haha, it starts to feel a bit like a bad hangover, doesn’t it?  Headache, a bit of nausea, and a hole in your heart that reminds you that it is your own damn fault.  Along with confusion.  Don’t worry, the probation department will be explaining to you where to go for services and how to comply with all the conditions.  And they will be charging you 25 dollars a month on top of all your other fees in order to actively monitor your case for the first couple of years.  Your probation officer will read regular reports from your treatment agency and any other entities involved, because you will sign waivers allowing all the parties to share information about you.  Your drinking and driving has made you a matter of public interest.

Your probation officer will start by setting face-to-face meetings every few weeks.  Over time, after showing full compliance, they may allow you to come in less frequently, as you slowly move through all the classes, workshops, fines and fees, treatment, urine tests, and other conditions.  And remember, they only work during office hours.  If you also work those hours, you will be asking for time off from your boss in order to come and meet with the probation officer.  And of course if you miss a scheduled meeting with probation, they write the judge, you get a letter to come in for a hearing, and if you miss your hearing (perhaps because you had the silly idea that you wanted to keep your job and you have had so many appointments and you don’t want to tell your boss why have to be gone so much) then the judge will issue a warrant for your arrest, and you may end up in jail, which will also make it pretty hard for you to show up for work.

So next time you are toasting with your friends in a bar and taking one for the road, think hard about the low, low cost of a taxi.   And consider also the incredible fun you can have being sober.  If you ever spend the whole evening at a party as the sober designated driver, you will learn a lot about your friends as they drink, and unlike them, you will actually remember it all.  And it will give you a useful little mirror to reflect upon how you present yourself to the world when you are  not sober.  It is a funny little bit of reflection you will gain if you can be sober around people who are drinking or drugging, and keep your eyes open, and really experience how people are doing in their altered states.  After a few such eye-opening observations, you may even decide to get sober and stay sober, even without all the fuss of a criminal case.  And why not?  There’s no law against it!