Academic journal article Alcohol Research

Court Procedures for Handling Intoxicated Drivers

Academic journal article Alcohol Research

Court Procedures for Handling Intoxicated Drivers

Article excerpt

The courts have implemented numerous approaches to reduce the probability of recidivism among people apprehended for or convicted of driving while intoxicated. Although traditional punitive sanctions, such as fines and incarceration, are commonly used, they have not eliminated drinking and driving in the United States. Consequently, the court system has developed additional sanctioning procedures that show promise. For example, rehabilitative programs (e.g., alcohol education and alcoholism treatment) can reduce recidivism, at least marginally. These programs appear to be more effective when combined with license suspension. In addition to license suspension, several alternative methods for limiting driving opportunities of offenders have proven effective, including impounding offenders' vehicles or license plates, installing ignition interlocks, and requiring electronic home monitoring or house arrest. Effective court monitoring is a critical component in supporting recovery and compelling offenders to parti cipate in rehabilitation programs. This role of the courts in monitoring offenders will likely increase as the use of intrusive, alternative sanctions grows. KEY WORDS: court ruling; sanction; drinking and driving; impaired driver; rehabilitation; drug court; license suspension; ignition interlock device; electronic monitoring of offenders; deterrence of AODU (alcohol or other drug [AOD] use, abuse, and dependence); AOD education

During the past two decades, the percentage of U.S. highway fatalities that can be classified as alcohol related (i.e., those involving alcohol-positive road users, such as drivers, bicyclists, or pedestrians) has fallen from 57 to 38 percent (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration [NHTSA] 1999). The reasons for this extensive reduction in alcohol-related highway fatalities are not fully understood. It is clear, however, that this decline coincides with a significant increase in the number and severity of drunk-driving laws. Such laws serve two major functions. First, they help prevent impaired driving by the public (i.e., exert a general deterrent effect) by Increasing the perceived risk of arrest and sanctioning. Second, they reduce the likelihood of recidivism (i.e., exert a specific deterrent effect) by imposing sanctions on people who are apprehended for driving while intoxicated (DWI). This latter deterrent primarily concerns the courts, which handle DWI offenders.

The relative importance of specific versus general deterrence is unclear and somewhat controversial, because estimates vary widely regarding the proportion of drinking drivers involved in fatal crashes who have been previously convicted of DWJ (i.e., who are repeat offenders). For example, data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (EARS), which includes information on arrests in the 3 years preceding the crash, have suggested that 11 percent of offenders are repeat offenders (Hedlund 1995). In contrast, data based on State record systems that include 7 to 10 years of arrest information have indicated that the proportion of repeat offenders is more than 30 percent (Simpson et al. 1996). Thus, for up to one-third of drinking drivers involved in fatal crashes, the courts have had a previous opportunity to intervene and reduce the risk of recidivism by implementing court programs.

This article provides an overview of the court procedures currently used to handle DWI offenders. The article first reviews some general considerations and historical developments in identifying and sanctioning DWI offenders, followed by a discussion of various types of sanctions used. Finally, the article explores the judicial process for adjudicating DWI offenses and the various stages in that process during which interventions can occur.


A large proportion of motorists whose driving is impaired by alcohol go undetected, as evidenced by the fact that at least two-thirds of the most serious (i. …

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