The Denver Post
If a convicted drunken driver violates probation by drinking, a dozen technologies can detect it.
An interlock device can prevent his car from starting. One ankle bracelet can detect alcohol coming through his skin. Another can make sure he's home, and now there are bracelets that do both.
A wrist bracelet can identify disturbances in sleep patterns that suggest alcohol or drug use. Probation officers can check for alcohol in an offender's breath, urine or saliva. Another chemical test hunts for a metabolite of alcohol that remains in his body for days. There's even a device to detect alcohol use by scanning the retina in his eye.
Meanwhile, the yearly toll of drunken-driving deaths remains tragically consistent.
In the United States, the percentage of passenger-vehicle drivers who were alcohol-impaired when they died in crashes has not improved since 2000, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data. Drunken driving is a factor in about one-third of all traffic deaths.
Experts cite several reasons. First, a tiny percentage of drunken drivers get caught. Second, the devices used to monitor drivers who do get caught may have lasting benefits only if coupled with a successful counseling program.
"All these technologies have a place. But you have to consider the human factor," said Marilyn Rosenberg, the director of Denver's electronic monitoring program. "You have to get to the bottom of the problem."
Those caught keep driving
Third, cheating is common.
In Colorado, where about 30,000 people get accused of drunken driving each year, a new law suspends the licenses of first offenders for nine months — unless they apply for an interlock from the Division of Motor Vehicles.
Stephen Hooper, who oversees that program, said about 1,500 drivers have taken that option so far this year, and their numbers are growing. But, he said, "there is evidence out there that as many as 70 to 75 percent of restrained drivers nationwide continue to drive while under restraint."
Jerry Duran was one.
In Jefferson County, he was charged with vehicular homicide, drunken driving and leaving the scene of a fatal crash after his friend James Sandoval died in a motorcycle accident. According to the arrest report, witnesses recounted a day of heavy drinking, followed by a two-motorcycle collision.
Duran turned himself in the day after the crash. This year a jury acquitted him of the most serious charges. Keith Goman, the case prosecutor, said, "Witnesses were talking about as many as 20 drinks over the course of the evening," but "there was no physical evidence of a collision."
Duran did plead guilty to driving without insurance and interlock evasion. He had evaded it simply by climbing onto a motorcycle instead. The judge imposed the maximum sentence: two years in jail.
Six months after Sandoval died, Duran was arrested in Denver for driving drunk, without a license. The judge sentenced him to 520 days, to be served simultaneously with his Jefferson County sentence, for his sixth DUI.
Sandoval's relatives said they also saw Duran keep driving, even to the courthouse.
When someone is ordered to drive only a car equipped with an interlock, "do they check?" asked Michelle Trujillo, Sandoval's youngest sister.
Two years after the crash, Sandoval's mother, Cecilia Vigil, struggles to discuss her son's death. "It's not right," she said, "the way the law is."
Who is the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition?
Our chief areas of interest include drug policy reform, women in prison, racial injustice, the impact of incarceration on children and families, the problems associated with re-entry and stopping the practice of using private prisons in our state.
If you would like to be involved please go to our website and become a member.
Sunday, October 25, 2009
The Denver Post