CANTON — St. Lawrence County District Attorney Mary E. Rain will no longer accept reductions on charges of driving while intoxicated or driving while ability impaired by drugs.
In an Aug. 8 letter to the St. Lawrence County Bar Association, Ms. Rain said, starting immediately, there will be no reductions for any DWI charges with a blood alcohol content above 0.1 percent, aggravated DWI above a 0.2 BAC or any DWAI drug charge under state vehicle and traffic law 1192(4).
Under state law, a BAC of 0.08 percent or higher constitutes proof of intoxication. Aggravated DWI is charged when the BAC is 0.18 percent or higher.
Additionally, as part of this new policy there will be no reduction if a defendant refuses to take a test to determine a BAC, felony charges must be from a Leandra’s Law violation, a DWI while children are passenger in the car, and if death or serious physical injury occurs because of drunk or drugged driving, the defendant must plead to the top offense and the top 1192 offense which covers operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
Ms. Rain declined to comment on the letter and said she will be issuing a news release later in the week; however, in her letter she wrote she was “taking a hard stance” with this new policy to refuse reductions due to the death and injuries from drunk and drugged drivers in the county.
“It has always been my goal to limit the number of policies placed into effect by this office because, discretion is a big part of a prosecutor’s job,” Ms. Rain stated in her letter. “However, at times, policies are necessary for a variety of reasons.”
She said it was her hope that these changes will encourage future discussions between the defense and prosecutor and provide “significant incentives for the defendant to consider a disposition prior to indictment and ultimately going to trial.”
Assistant Public Defender Steven G. Ballan said he had been assigned by county Bar Association President Marcia L. LaMay to form a committee to deal with the new policy.
Mr. Ballan said while he can understand the need for a “hard stance” on repeat offenders, this policy directly impacts first time offenders as well and fails to consider unique circumstances.
“This DA, when she was running for office, talked about every case being reviewed under merits,” Mr. Ballan said. “Now they are saying they aren’t going to compromise at all and this policy, I think is extremely hash.”
Previously, first-time offenders would be given the opportunity to plea down a DWI, which is a misdemeanor and leaves a permanent criminal record, to a DWAI, an infraction, which would not.
The penalties for a misdemeanor DWI conviction, Mr. Ballan said, include a fine of $500 minimum, $1,000 maximum, installation of an ignition interlock device for at least a year, participation in a $300 defensive driving program, a three-year civil penalty to the Department of Motor Vehicles totaling $750 and license revocation for six months.
“If you get a reduction to a DWAI, you’re not really getting away with a lot,” Mr. Ballan said. “If it is your first offense, you could end up without a criminal record, your license doesn’t get revoked, but it gets suspended for 90 days.”
He added that while it wouldn’t be required to get an ignition interlock device installed in a vehicle, court and civil fines, fees and surcharges are still in place to make a significant impact financially.
“So they will now have a criminal conviction and a criminal record that will stay with them for the rest of their lives,” Mr. Ballan said. “That will be the direct impact.”
Moreover, with the inability to have a reduction in charges, it will increase the amount of time a case is pending in court, Chief Public Defender Stephen D. Button said.
As of January of this year, the public defender’s office alone has taken on 103 total cases where DWI, aggravated DWI and DWAI drugs were the top charges. In 2013 the office took on a total of 142 of these cases. Mr. Button said — open to close — the average length of time each individual case this year has been 202 days. Last year the average length of each individual case was a total of 294 days.
“Whether or not this proposal will be successful has yet to be seen; however, what I can say is that it is far more likely to increase the time in which a case is pending,” Mr. Button said.
He added that it will also increase the financial strain on departments responsible for appearing with and prosecuting defendants charged with these offenses, on the courts responsible for managing the cases they are moved through with the jurors that will be called because, without the option to seek a reduction in charges, defendants will have nothing to lose by going to trial, and as a result, trials will also increase in the county.
In her letter, Ms. Rain wrote “it has always been my position that a case should not be presented to a grand jury unless it can be proved at a trial. Therefore it is the position of this office, once a case is indicated, plea negotiations will be strictly limited.”
What isn’t being taken into consideration under this new policy is the problem of addiction and substance abuse, Mr. Ballan said.
“There are definitely people who have DWI and DWAI issues that could be addressed by Ogdensburg City Drug Court,” Mr. Ballan said. “The object is if we can get them through this program, hopefully we will not see them due to these problems again. So who is the big loser if they are not offered this opportunity? Who wins if we give them treatment and we reduce the likelihood of recidivism?”
And while it is admirable that Ms. Rain is trying to attempt to resolve the issue of what has become a common plague of today’s society, Mr. Button said it may fail to achieve the overall objective and could create larger problems.
“Will this policy correct the issues I think this district attorney wants to address?” Mr. Button asked. “I doubt it.”