Keith Emerich, a Pennsylvanian recently went to hospital to address an irregular heartbeat issue, revealing that he himself was a heavy drinker: a six-pack a day guy. Later, a letter arrived for Mr. Emerich from Pennsylvania’s Department of transportation, a letter informing him his driving license had been revoked. His doctor had turned him in to the authorities as required by state law, and he would need to prove to the authorities that he was competent to drive before he’d get it back.
This law in Pennsylvania is old, perhaps dated (dating back to the 60’s), but it’s not unusual. DWI defendants have been disarmed of the presumption of innocence by lawmakers and Courts – along with other common criminal justice protections the law routinely gives to the likes of pedophiles, accused rapists, pedophiles and murderers.
Referring to the Michigan v. Sitz case of 1990, the U.S. Supreme Court judged that the degree of the drunken driving issue outweighed the “minor” intrusion into the drivers’ protections unreasonable search carried out by roadblock sobriety checkpoints. Speaking for the majority, Chief Justice Rehnquist judges that the 25,000 freeway fatalities due to alcohol were compelling enough to put aside the Fourth Amendment.
The trouble with this figure of 25,000 is it’s awfully misleading. It combines any highway deaths in which alcohol played any part: an intoxicated pedestrian struck by a sober driver, for instance.
It’s a figure still in use today. Back in 2002, the Los Angeles Times analyzed accident information and estimated that in the year before, only roughly 5,000 of those deaths involved a drunk driver killing a sober driver, a passenger, or pedestrian.
Sadly, Legislatures and Courts still frequently quote the inflated “alcohol-related” figure when advocating new legislature that chops away at our civil liberties.
Furnishing Worrying Examples
As an example, the Supreme Court has judged that states can enact laws that legislate away a drivers’ Sixth Amendment right to a trial by jury and his or her Fifth Amendment legal right against self-recrimination. Back in 2002, the Supreme Court of Wisconsin judged that law enforcement officers could extract blood by means of force from any person suspected of drunk driving. Other Courts have judged that prosecutors are not required to provide defendants with blood or breath test specimens for exclusive and independent testing (even though they’re both relatively inexpensive to carry out). In almost every other feature of criminal law, defendants are allowed contact with the evidence against them.
These unilateral decisions haven’t passed unseen by state legislatures. Forty-one states now reserve the right to lawfully take away drunken driving defendants’ licenses before they ever receive a trial. Thirty-seven states now levy stronger penalties on drivers who refuse to agree to a sobriety roadside test compared to those who take them and fail. Seventeen states have laws that withhold the same opportunities for plea bargaining afforded to those accused of violent crimes.
Until lately, cops in New York City could seize the vehicles of first-offender drunk driving suspects when they were arrested. Those acquitted, cleared of charges, were still obliged to file civil suits in order to get their vehicles returned, an act that could cost several thousand dollars. The city of Los Angeles still impounds the vehicles of suspected first-time drunk drivers, as well as the vehicles of those suspected of dealing in drugs and soliciting prostitutes.
More recent legislature is even worse. As of the previous month, Washington State now decrees that anyone arrested (not convicted but arrested) for drunken driving to fit an “ignition interlock” apparatus in their vehicle, one that makes the driver puff into a tube before the ignition can be released, and again at regular periods while driving. A second law requires that a jury hear all cases relating to drunken driving. The law then instructs the jury to consider available evidence “ina light most favorable to the prosecution,” a ridiculous evidentiary principle at odds with all the American Criminal Justice System is meant to stand for.
Scarier still are the laws that haven’t passed, but will likely be introduced once more. New Mexico’s state legislature almost cleared a law that would require ignition interlock devices on every car purchased in the state starting in 2008, quite regardless of the buyer’s record for driving. Drivers would then have been mandated to pass a breath test to start the car, and then again every ten minutes while on the road. Computer systems in the car would have tracked and recorded the tests, which would have eventually been uploaded at service centers and transmitted to law enforcement agencies to be evaluated. A similar law was once considered for New York City.
We’re not advocating easing up on drunken drivers. But our laws have to be fairly and equitably grounded in sound science and the presumption of innocence, not media hysteria. They should aim for repeat offenders and drunks who are significantly impaired, not social drinkers who bestride the threshold of legality. Though the danger of drunken driving has notably decreased in the past 20 years, it remains routinely over-stated by anti-alcohol lobbyists and knee-jerk lawmakers. Even if the danger was as significant as it’s often depicted, throwing aside basic criminal assurances and civil liberties is the wrong direction to take it.