Monday, July 24, 2000

DUI law unevenly applied

Despite tougher laws, thousands avoid penalties

The Associated Press

        LEXINGTON — Statewide records show that Kentucky courts dismissed or amended down about one of every five DUI cases over the past three years, despite a law meant to end such practices in most instances.

        Even as lawmakers passed tougher laws and promised “zero tolerance” for DUI, the courts have allowed thousands of people to avoid jail time, fines, alcohol abuse counseling and revoked drivers' licenses.

        From a fairness standpoint, Kentucky also is left with uneven enforcement. Some counties clamp down and convict most people charged with DUI. Other counties allow from one-third to one-half of their DUI arrests to end in dismissal or reduced charges, such as reckless driving or public intoxication.

        The Lexington Herald-Leader analyzed how courts handled more than 97,000 misdemeanor DUI cases across Kentucky from Jan. 1, 1997, through Dec. 31, 1999. The results indicate that, in many courtrooms, DUI laws simply are disregarded.

        Despite a decline in alcohol-related traffic deaths during the 1990s, about 200 people died in Kentucky last year in such crashes. Drunken drivers were involved in 26 percent of deaths, about the same as the U.S. average.

        The latest law takes effect in October. Drivers will be presumed drunk if their blood-alcohol concentration is 0.08, instead of the current 0.10. Drunken drivers who do something especially dangerous will face mandatory jail sentences on top of their other punishments.

        But even as courts prepare for the new law, some appear to do a poor job of enforcing the old one.

        Half of Owsley County's DUI cases during the past three years were dismissed or amended down. One of every three DUI cases in Robertson, Gallatin, Pike, Edmonson, Pulaski, Kenton, Green, Clay, Marion and Powell counties was dismissed or amended down. By contrast, other counties, including Fayette and Scott, are relatively tough on drunken driving and mostly produced convictions.

        “That's surprising. I would have assumed that the DUI laws would be uniformly enforced across the state,” said William Fortune, a criminal law teacher at the University of Kentucky.

        That is what the legislature intended, said state Rep. Rob Wilkey, D-Franklin, a longtime advocate of stricter enforcement. State courts are supposed to follow the same rules and enforce the same laws, Mr. Wilkey said.

        “Clearly, we have judges and prosecutors who are not following the law,” Mr. Wilkey said.

        Chief Justice Joseph Lambert oversees the state judiciary and disagrees with that criticism. Judges and prosecutors interpret the laws in different ways depending on their backgrounds, he said. The attitudes of local people also influence how DUI cases are treated, he added.

        “I'm fearful of appearing as the defender of a system that may appear to not be functioning well,” he said. “But counties, in their willingness to convict on DUI cases, are not all the same.”


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