Out of court

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Why Do We Let Them Re-Offend Again and Again?

Over the weekend there was a horrible tragedy in my neighborhood: 3 young men were killed when their car slammed into a metal pole at high speed; and a high school girl who was seriously injured is not out of the woods yet. It is unknown whether alcohol was involved, but the police have now named the driver. It turns out he had a pending DUI case, where he allegedly blew a .14 breath alcohol which is nearly twice the limit of .08 for those over 21. He was 20, so he was way over the .02 limit for those under 21..

A friend of ours called and wanted to know why his license had not been suspended yet. She also wondered why a recent public official (Washington Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn) who was arrested for DUI got his license suspended so quickly. The answer on the latter question is easy: he pled guilty in court to DUI, so his license was suspended immediately. He conceded his right to fight it and accepted his punishment. For a public official that is what a mensch would do..

In contrast, the young man had not pled guilty so his case was still pending. In our society we presume the accused innocent, no matter what the crime. (In "Alice in Wonderland" its' 'punishment first, verdict later,' a place some demagogues would enjoy.) In order for a court to suspend someone's license, there must be due process of law. That is a phrase from the Constitution. Although a driver's license is not a "right," it is a privilege with certain protections. It cannot be taken away from a person who legally possesses one without due process--some legal procedure. So in the young man's criminal case, he is accorded a variety of rights such as a jury trial, live testimony, proof beyond a reasonable doubt, and so on, before he can be punished with jail and license suspension..

In DUI cases, there is also a parallel administrative proceeding which is largely independent of the criminal case, but tends to move faster. For example, the young man with the pending DUI, would have been given a notice the night of his arrest for DUI. That notice would inform him that he had 20 days to demand a hearing before the Department of Licensing (DOL), since he blew greater than an .02 (being under 21, or, if over 21, over .08 .) If he did not demand the hearing within the 20 days, then DOL would administratively suspend his license for 90 days..

Since the police said he was arrested for his DUI in early March, even if he had not demanded a hearing, his suspension would not have gone into effect before the crash in early April. Even without a demand for a hearing, that process takes time before the DOL issues a suspension. On the other hand, if he had demanded a hearing, it would have been set about 30-60 days out from the receipt of his demand. During that time, he could still legally drive..

As a society governed by Constitutional principles, there are occasions where someone who commits one wrong can repeat it before being punished for the first wrong. The whole tragedy surrounding the man who killed four police officers is even more complicated. He was someone who was allowed to post bail before a court could review all of the facts. That, along with Arkansas' parole procedures and snafus with Washington state, led to that nightmare..

Now due to that sordid history, the Legislature has passed a bill changing Washington's Constitutional provisions on bail, which have been the same since statehood in 1889. This must be approved by the voters yet, and I suspect it will be approved. Whether this change in bail procedure will prevent future tragedies is hard to predict. As a society that values freedom, it is a challenge to deter repeat offenders and maintain due process and the presumption of innocence. It remains an evolving process..

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