Drunk-driving arrests, court cases decline as new challenges emerge

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The number of drunk-driving arrests is down, so is the number of court cases prosecutors are initiating, and there’s another legal threat looming just months after refusing a breath test got a whole lot easier.

The breath-test changes created new hurdles to catching drunk drivers in Hawaii.

DUI problems are an issue we’ve been looking at for more than year, since we uncovered that more than one in four of those arrested walked away with no punishment. Our stories led to more efforts to crack down, but Always Investigating learned of new challenges.

The first four months of the year have seen fewer people arrested for DUI, and fewer drunk-driving and related cases heading to court. Arrests are down 13 percent. Court cases dropped even more, down 16 percent.

“There are no fewer drunk drivers around,” said Arkie Koehl, a spokesman for Mothers Against Drunk Driving. “There are just fewer arrests, and that means there is proportionally more danger for our residents and visitors.”

Much of this could be the fallout after the Hawaii Supreme Court ruling in State vs. Won in late November 2015, which said blood- and breath-test procedures were coercive search-and-seizures.

HPD arrests for drunk driving
20152016
January353390
February320262
March461313
April363330
Total1,4971,295
Percentage difference: -13%Prosecutions of drunk-driving, related cases (January-April)
20152016
§291E-61 (OVUII)1,5101,186
§291E-62 (Driving w/ suspended or revoked license)482502
§291E-64 (Underage drinking, driving)2212
Total2,0141,700
Percentage difference: -16%

Dave Koga, spokesman for the Honolulu Prosecutor’s office, told us: “Won has been a factor as we have seen a number of cases dismissed with prejudice. In other cases, without BAC (blood alcohol concentration), we may have had to consider charging different offenses or decline to prosecute. If HPD chooses not to charge a driver, that arrest report is not sent to our office.”

HPD spokeswoman Michelle Yu said: “There are several reasons why the monthly totals will vary. If the officers have to attend extended training or teach classes, this will reduce the amount of time spent on the road. Special assignments (i.e. escort training and president/VIP visits) also affect the amount of time available for enforcement.”

Both police and prosecutors say they are taking steps together to turn around a system challenged by backlogs, attendance issues, and sweeping changes handed down from the Supreme Court.

Defense attorneys have other theories about the slowdown in arrests and prosecutions.

Jonathan Burge, the attorney in the State vs. Won case, said, “I think that’s the backlash that happens whenever there’s change.”

Change like that breath-test ruling, or police supervisors cracking down on court absences by officers. Our investigation into the high dismissal rate found missed court dates as a common problem.

“I’ve seen police showing up. They’re showing up a lot more,” Burge said. “They’re cognizant of your stories, and I think they’re taking positive steps as a result of it. They know that their bosses are watching and you’re watching.”

With that better attendance, prosecutors are working with police to keep cases moving and winning more of them.

Always Investigating asked Honolulu Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro, are his deputies seeing better attendance at court by the police witnesses?

“The fact that we have more convictions, I think indicates that, yes,” Kaneshiro said.

But there could be another legal challenge. Burge, the attorney who challenged the old breath-test law, says the revised consent form is still too coercive.

“I would feel confident taking the new form up to the Supreme Court like I did with Won,” Burge said. “It would throw out all the breath tests again.”

Not everyone arrested for drunk driving fights it, and yet a special court that’s helped repeat drunk drivers break the cycle is itself living on borrowed time. A program called DWI Court runs out of money September 2016

DWI Court started in 2013 and has had 27 graduates.

“There is a 0-percent recidivism rate for drunk driving among the graduates, thus increasing public safety,” said Hawaii State Judiciary spokeswoman Tammy Mori.

“I’ve got clients that come in with multiple DUIs and they’re in tears. They don’t want to do it anymore,” Burge said. “They’ve got to plead guilty, but they’ve got the resources there (at the DWI court).”

But the resources could disappear this fall after the Legislature slashed their funding — nearly $200,000 for staff, electronic alcohol monitoring, treatment services and a one-time computer purchase.

“My hope is that something will come along to rescue the court next time it runs out,” Koehl said.

The Judiciary says it’s applied for a Department of Transportation grant to cover the cost. “A determination on the grant is still pending,” Mori said. “The program will also continue to seek permanent funding through the State in order to ensure long-term sustainability.”

“It’s people that have really needed the help and the Legislature cut that,” Burge said. “This is the worst of the worst who need treatment.”

We’ll follow up on their efforts to get more funding.

Meanwhile, both police and prosecutors say they’re working together to address the challenges brought up by the breath-test ruling, and to fulfill a Honolulu City Council resolution asking them to report back later this year on how they will better coordinate their efforts against drunk driving.

That resolution came as a result of Always Investigating’s stories.

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