Big changes await DUI offenders

State agencies are tweaking a new law that will allow repeat drunken drivers to keep their licenses by using an interlock ignition device, a type of in-car Breathalyzer.

The law also will enable the state Department of Correction to release DUI offenders from prison to serve out their mandatory minimum sentences as home confinement.

The radical changes to an already complex law are scheduled to take effect Jan. 1. Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which lobbied for the revisions, and defense attorneys who handle DUI cases endorse the changes, which they say will protect public safety while enabling offenders to continue with their lives and get treatment.

"It's a win-win situation," said Norwich attorney Paul F. Chinigo, whose case load is often heavy with DUI clients. "MADD clearly supported this. People who have to work and people who have (drinking) issues are still going to drive and take the risk. By initiating the ignition interlock device they are going to drive and be monitored."

Janice Heggie Margolis, executive director of MADD's Connecticut chapter, said 78 percent of those who have their licenses suspended continue to drive. She called the new law "lifesaving and critical" and said MADD does not want people whose licenses are suspended to sit at home without getting treatment.

New Mexico saw a 30 percent decrease in DUI fatalities after mandating ignition interlock devices for first-time offenders, Margolis said. As for the home confinement aspect of the new law, she said the offenders would be getting help for their problems and would be able to continue with their lives while remaining under supervision.

"This is not about early home release without treatment, without assessment," Margolis said. "When they are home confined, parole (officers from the Department of Correction) will make a decision whether they will be given the (ignition interlock device) to go to school, work, religious services."

Judges and prosecutors are less enthusiastic. They say they are ready to do what lawmakers have mandated, but are not as well versed as they would like to be on the new law. They also question the Department of Correction's ability to override court sentences and release someone convicted of DUI early.

"If I lock somebody up and within a short period of time they get out and drive and kill somebody, I don't want anybody telling me it was my fault," said Superior Court Judge Kevin P. McMahon of GA10 in New London.

McMahon said attorneys have been putting off their DUI cases for months and months, and he's been letting them, "because nobody knows what's going to happen in January."

New London attorney Anthony R. Basilica said he has been advising clients to wait until the new rules and regulations are in place. He doesn't want to tell a client to begin serving 120 days in prison only to find out the sentence would have been shorter had he waited until Jan. 1.

"I'm just kind of waiting to see where it really shakes out, when it really comes to push or shove, what happens," Basilica said.

Margolis said MADD is embarking on a statewide tour to educate prosecutors, judges and police departments on the new law. MADD staff have been demonstrating the ignition interlock device at various events. The Department of Motor Vehicles will administer the new program and collect a $100 fee from each participant, who will also pay one of five vendors an estimated $1,000 to $1,200 a year to rent the device.

Users will not be able to start their car if, after blowing into the device, it detects a blood alcohol content above a certain level. The driver will be periodically retested while driving, which the vendors say can be done safely. If the device detects alcohol, the car's lights and horn will be activated until a clean breath sample is provided. Eventually, the vehicle will shut off.

State Rep. Tom Reynolds, D-Ledyard, who was the lead author of the ignition interlock device bill, said users of the IID will be tracked, so that somebody who blows into the device with alcohol in their system a certain number of times would be required to use the IID longer.

"Continued violations means that device is never getting off the vehicle," Reynolds said.

Under both the existing and new laws, those who are arrested a first time for driving under the influence will be able to get the charge dismissed after successful completion of an alcohol education program. The DMV will suspend their driver's license for 90 days.

With a second arrest, drivers must serve a mandatory minimum of 48 hours in prison and will have their licenses suspended for 45 days rather than the year suspension previously imposed. Judges will be required to order use of the IID for a year. The IID was optional under the previous law. About 450 state residents are using the device. That number is expected to increase dramatically under the new law.

For those arrested a third time, the mandatory minimum sentence is 120 days. The license suspension is 45 days and use of the IID is mandatory for three years.

Those convicted a fourth time will face a mandatory year in prison. Their license will be revoked for at least six years. If an IID is approved, it must be used for 10 years.

In addition to having their licenses suspended by the court, drunken drivers will continue to face suspension by the Department of Motor Vehicles through a separate procedure known as "per se."

The DUI law is stricter for drivers under 21 years of age, and the early release program does not apply to those convicted of manslaughter with a motor vehicle while driving under the influence.

Risk of re-offending

"Mandatory minimum" is now a relative term, since the Department of Correction has the authority to release DUI offenders to home confinement. The management plan for DUI offenders says the lowest-risk prisoners will be released after 10 to 14 days.

Patrick Hynes, a Department of Correction psychologist/sociologist in charge of implementing the new program, said this track will contain about 5 percent of offenders, primarily those who had low blood alcohol upon arrest, are in treatment and have little criminal history.

The next level of offenders, still considered low risk for re-offending, will be released after one month if they are found to be amenable to treatment. Those considered medium risk will stay in prison for 10 weeks. The highest risk offenders will be incarcerated for at least six months.

Some people will not be considered for early release, Hynes said.

"They really have to demonstrate they're learning something," he said. "It's not just about putting in your time. We fully anticipate there will be some people that we would look at their level of risk, their lack of response to treatment, their lack of motivation and take the position that there's no good reason to put them into discretionary release."

As required by the new law, the Department of Correction created an advisory committee with members from several state agencies, MADD, the University of Connecticut, and one independent citizen. The DOC will track recidivism rates to determine the program's success and will evaluate whether the early release program reduces "collateral damage," such as family disruptions and job losses, for DUI offenders.

Newly sentenced prisoners will be evaluated based on their blood alcohol content at arrest, their criminal history, whether they are in treatment and whether they have a "stake in conformity," according to Hynes. People who have families, work and pay taxes are less likely to re-offend.

"I may have an alcohol problem, but I've got a high stake in conformity, a low chance of recidivating, and I sure as heck don't want this to happen again," Hynes said.

The DOC has created a specialized unit of addiction services and parole staff to work with DUI offenders. Spokesman Brian Garnett said the program would be implemented with the existing budget.

Attorney Ronald F. Stevens of East Lyme, who specializes in DUI cases, said the first thing he talks about with new clients is getting treatment. He said warehousing people with drug and alcohol problems does not serve any useful purpose, and eventually they would be released anyway.

"The knee-jerk reaction has been, the more we punish people the better able we are to solve the problem," he said. "History has shown that's not true, particularly with alcohol and drug-dependent people."

New London attorney Matthew G. Berger hopes the program will expand.

"It's a great program because it recognizes that for addicts, treatment is often more important at preventing recidivism than incarceration," he said. "I only hope that, if the program works as expected, that the home confinement with treatment model can be expanded to cover those addicts who are incarcerated for low-level drug offenses, not just alcoholics."

k.florin@theday.com

DUI by the numbers

• During the past fiscal year in Connecticut, 12,488 people were charged with driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

• More than 7,600 of those cases resulted in dismissals, since first-time offenders are allowed to clear the arrest off their record after completing an alcohol education program. Also, 4,006 people pleaded guilty to DUI and 741 cases were not prosecuted.

• About 400 people are incarcerated for DUI convictions. Annually, about 1,200 people are sentenced to prison for DUI.

Source: State Judicial Branch and Department of Correction

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