With a total of 159 operating while intoxicated charges in Jackson County in 2017, driving drunk continues to be a large issue in the county, which has some wondering how to solve it.
“Our community has a high level of people that consume alcohol and/or illegal drugs to become impaired or under the influence,” Jackson County Sheriff Duane Waldera said. “How do we get them to know that the risk they are taking after the fact outweighs doing the act itself?”
Not only does Jackson County have a high rate of OWIs, but it also has a high rate of those that have risen to felonies, which is now four OWIs or more after the state changed the rule June 1.
“Everybody knows over their lifetime if they have consumed and gotten intoxicated how it felt. It is pretty errant I think that you don’t know you are under the influence or not,” Waldera said.
Interim Jackson County District Attorney Melissa Inlow said the nation has a shortage of alcohol and abuse counselors, which is increasing the problem.
“We have basically one private provider in the county and that is Stein Counseling. We have the county providing some of that, but they are fully booked. It is taking weeks to get somebody in to see someone at the county,” Inlow said.
Inlow said people need to be more proactive when they are out with friends and acquaintances to stop them from driving, opting for an alternative such as SafeRide.
“We don’t have the public transportation infrastructure, but promoting the SafeRide and intervening when we see someone getting into the vehicle when they should be driving,” Inlow said when asked about ways to stop people from driving drunk.
For Waldera, he finds that OWI offenses typically happen because someone is addicted or someone decides to binge drink and make poor choices at the end of the night.
“Some unbalance in decision making and/or some factors that are triggering these moments in our community that people are disregarding their personal safety and others and making those poor decisions. There are so many factors in Jackson County that contribute to that,” Waldera said adding that impairment because of alcohol and drug use is also a concern.
Issue too large for current system
Each OWI arrest brings many additional charges, making plea deals the norm when litigating OWIs and the other charges an individual may face.
“We are more concerned with the higher penalty charge of the OWI,” Inlow said. “It is just part of our negotiation to either dismiss some of the charges or amend them in order to address the particular needs of the offender, address any victim issues like restitution and then protecting the public.”
Inlow added that someone cannot by law be convicted of both the OWI and prohibited alcohol concentration level charges that are often brought against someone who gets caught driving drunk.
Offenders that get several OWIs within a close time frame also tend to get a plea deal so that their occurrences can be dealt with all at once and save time for the court system.
“Instead of having to try each one separately because of how due process works in our courts, they put it all in one package deal,” Waldera said. “We don’t always agree with the pleas, but to satisfy the court calendars and what they feel is the best, the DA’s office and/or the prosecutors make these decisions.”
Even though it is hard to see sound evidence go to waste in some of these cases, Waldera said that plea bargaining is necessary for the court.
“I know that plea bargaining has to happen otherwise if we took every case to court we would need three or four judges in our county,” Waldera said. “If we do not get something figured out, we are going to need some more help on the courts.”
Inlow contends that while accepting a plea bargain may appear like the county is going easy on an offender, having several OWIs can lead to having severe consequences.
“The fifth and sixth are felonies, so there are a lot of collateral consequences that go with that. They are no longer able to present firearms and they cannot vote until their civil rights are restored. The seventh, eighth and higher have a mandatory prison sentence,” Inlow said.
For instance, the seventh OWI would be three years in prison and extended supervision after they are released.
“Our focus is to get the offender some programming and supervision so they don’t re-offend. Putting them only in custody, they are not going to get that programming. At least not in jail and depending on the length of the prison sentence, they may not get it in prison either,” Inlow said. “There is always a punishment aspect to a sentence whether it be probation or imprisonment, but the main goal is to rehabilitate them and protect the public from future OWIs.”
How the process works
Weaving and driving slowly are just some of the suspicious activities that deputies can use to pull someone over they suspect is driving drunk.
“Typically on a starting point of an OWI, there is a traffic violation of some sort and/or reasonable suspicion that the person is driving impaired,” Waldera said.
Once they have pulled you over, a deputy will then ask for your identification, ask for insurance and give an indication for the reason of the traffic stop.
“Before they really get too far into it, they want to find out who they are dealing with and what is really going on,” Waldera said.
During the stop, the deputy is trying to gather observations of the driver that point to driving drunk including glossy eyes, slowed motor skills and slurred speech.
If the deputy sees enough clues, they will usually request that the person performs field sobriety tests such as a one-legged stand and walk and turn.
Waldera said that someone will usually admit to drinking, but they are not always honest on the amount of alcohol consumed.
“Basically what you are trying to do is get enough information or clues that you believe based on your training experience and your abilities, that this person is impaired,” Waldera said.
If the deputy believes he or she has enough clues, then they will ask the suspect if they will voluntarily take a preliminary breath test.
“It is not required, but we like to give them opportunities to verify what we have observed and/or to give an idea of the level of intoxication,” Waldera said.
If there is probable cause, the deputy can then arrest the person for an OWI and take them into custody to conduct a blood alcohol test. If the individual does not agree to the blood alcohol test, then a warrant has to be obtained.
“We typically want to have everything completed within three hours so that the blood alcohol test can be close to the event. There are situations where it goes outside of the three hours where it would take special testimony,” Waldera said.
After three hours, someone from the chemistry lab in Madison would need to testify so they could determine the level of intoxication.
“Typically we use the evidentiary test, but they would also be able to use the math or the science behind the process of absorbing the alcohol. I know that everyone is different, but there is enough data out there that allows them to get that for the courts,” Waldera said.
The deputy is using all of the information he or she has gathered to determine the level of impairment of the driver.
“You are taking all of the observations of the impairment plus the evidentiary tests to basically prove to the courts that this individual is under the influence,” Waldera said.
Once the deputy has submitted the report, the district attorney then reviews the case to see the signs of impairment the deputy witnessed.
“Initially what we usually do is charge the OWI and any accompanying crimes that go along with it. Sometimes you will see an operating while revoked because of the number of OWIs, their driver’s license is probably revoked,” Inlow said.
Usually there are two charges when looking at someone who got caught driving drunk: an OWI or PAC (prohibited alcohol concentration).
All of this will be completed before the blood test gets back after about 45 days, at which time the complaint will be amended to include the levels.
If the individual has enough OWIs to warrant a felony, they get a preliminary hearing at which time the defense attorneys will typically waive the time limits.
“Most attorneys will waive the time limits for that so we can have a pre-trial conference. So that I can sit down and look at the offenders criminal history, their driving history and the facts of the case to come up with a resolution that I think will protect the public, get the driver or the offender some programming that will hopefully prevent them from driving while intoxicated again and then there are some mandatory minimums with these particular charges,” Inlow said.
Typically the offender will then plea to the offense and Inlow will propose a recommendation for sentencing. The judge can then give the individual more or less than what the District Attorney recommends as long as they are meeting the mandatory minimums for the charges.