Drunk driving arrests near pre-pandemic numbers; DUI plea deal program created to resolve court backlog no longer an option

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HONOLULU(KHON2) — Drunk driving arrests are ramping up again after a dip in 2020.

Courts are also no longer offering a plea deal for those caught driving under the influence.

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The pandemic forced everyone to stay home and shut everything down — including the courts. Now that things are getting back to normal, police say people are driving drunk at similar rates to before the pandemic.

Drunk driving is a serious problem in the islands.

“In 2020, the pandemic year, there was a nice little dip. Now, 2021 we’re back up,” HPD Traffic Division acting captain James Slayter explained.

Slayter said there were more than 1500 DUI arrests in the first five months of 2019. That number dropped to 999 in 2020. There were almost 1300 arrests through Tuesday, June 1, in 2021.

“It is an issue in Hawaii that we need to address,” Slayter said.

Mother’s Against Drunk Driving (MADD) chair-elect and former HPD Maj. Kurt Kendro said it takes more than police roadblocks to solve the problem.

“We need more public education, we need more public action,” Kendro explained. “And we need law enforcement. It’s kind of a three-fold approach to it to prevent impaired drivers on the roadways. But ultimately, it comes down to the individual and them to not drive while impaired.”

Drunk drivers also need to be held accountable. That became a problem when courts closed during the pandemic.

“Our greatest fear was that we would have 1000 cases of people who were arrested for drunk driving during the pandemic, that those cases would be dismissed because of court congestion,” Kendro said.

The prosecuting attorney’s office created the DUI pilot program and allowed first-time offenders to plead guilty to the lesser charge of reckless driving, which has similar punishments as a DUI but is not an alcohol related offense.

The plea deal required defendants to install an ignition interlock in their car for a year, pay $1,000 fine and attend a 14-hour alcohol assessment class.

It ran between February and May 2021. Anyone arrested after Monday, May 31, was ineligible for it.

The prosecutor’s office says 1,234 first-time DUI defendants took the deal.

Kendro says MADD is happy drunk drivers did not get off scot-free and he wants to share this message.

“The public community has to understand that drunk driving is serious — people die as a result of impaired drivers on our roadways. And we need to prevent it from happening.”

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