ELIZABETHTOWN - Driving while intoxicated is one of the most common crimes in the North Country, and its prosecution has been a central issue in the campaign for Essex County district attorney.
Incumbent Julie Garcia's campaign Web site says she has "the toughest DWI policy in the North Country." The first question in the debate between her and Kristy Sprague last month was what is the biggest criminal issue facing the county. Garcia got to answer first and said alcohol and drug abuse, which she said also leads to other crimes.
Sprague has attacked Garcia's policy of not reducing DWI charges when the offender's blood alcohol is .10 or higher as not allowing enough room for the circumstances of the offense. She has also questioned Garcia's effectiveness in prosecuting and reducing the number of DWIs.
Garcia was elected in 2005, receiving the Republican committee endorsement and winning the Republican primary. However, the county Republican committee endorsed Sprague on March 31 of this year. Garcia has also been endorsed by the Democrats this year. Registered Republicans will vote Tuesday on which they want to be their party's nominee.
Garcia adopted a policy, starting Jan. 1 of this year, that DWI charges will not be plea-bargained to the lesser driving while ability impaired when the offender's blood-alcohol level is over .10. The legal limit for DWI is .08.
"We've taken a tough stance on DWI cases, because DWI in Essex County kills more people than any other crime," Garcia said at the debate.
A crash course in DWI numbers
The second column is the percentage of cases initiated as DWIs that were convicted as DWIs.
The third column is the county's rank among New York's 62 counties.
YEAR - % - RANK
2004 - 39 - 39
2005 - 31 - 50
2006 - 21 - 62
2007 - 31 - 60
2008 - 43 - 41
YEAR - % - RANK
2004 - 37 - 44
2005 - 41 - 37
2006 - 38 - 38
2007 - 31 - N/A
2008 - 45 - 37
YEAR - % - RANK
2004 - 48 - 25
2005 - 46 - 26
2006 - 42 - 33
2007 - 41 - N/A
2008 - 44 - 40
Neither Clinton nor Franklin County has such a policy. Garcia said she started this because she feels the "detrimental impact" of DWI has been minimized for too long, and she hopes to open people's eyes to "the tragic consequences of this crime."
However, "Conviction rates mean nothing if you're not driving the number of arrests down," Garcia said. "The main goal is to reduce the number of people who come into the system."
Garcia said she has taken a number of steps toward this goal, notably toward reducing underaged drinking, through the creation of an anonymous tip line and her involvement with the county's underaged drinking and impaired driving task force.
"The nexus between people struggling with addiction is, they start drug use at early ages," Garcia said at the debate.
Sprague said she opposes Garcia's hard-line policy limiting plea bargains, believing DWIs should be addressed on an individual basis. For example, she said, if someone has a relatively low blood-alcohol content and is a first-time offender, she said the defendant could be eligible for a reduction, depending on the circumstances of the offense.
"No record, first-time offenders coming up with .10, would I consider a reduction? Yes," Sprague said. "There are other things to look to. Were they cooperative? Was there an accident? Was there alcohol in the vehicle? (Were there) children in the vehicle?"
Sprague said she favors mandatory alcohol abuse evaluations for DWI offenders who get the charges reduced. She also said the strict policy has led to justices in town courts dismissing some DWI cases rather than see a conviction that would result in the offender losing his or her driver's license.
Sprague has questioned Garcia's prosecution of such cases. At the debate, she cited two that were dismissed: those against Marc Bordeau and John T. Barrett.
Both cases went before Essex County Judge Richard Meyer. Meyer ruled in the Bordeau case that Bordeau crossing the shoulder line for less than three seconds is not a traffic infraction and should not have resulted in a stop. In the Barrett case, Meyer ruled that legally sufficient evidence was not presented to the grand jury. Barrett was reportedly found drunk and injured near his damaged motorcycle but denied and was not seen operating it, making a DWI charge unsustainable.
"That's not being tough," Sprague said at the debate. "That's being ineffective."
Garcia replied that her office has prosecuted thousands of cases and that a few being dismissed isn't "anything to get too excited about."
Conviction and arrest rates
DWI cases in Essex County went up in 2005 and 2006, then began to decline, dropping off sharply this year. Garcia took office in 2006.
There were 239 DWI cases opened in 2004, 331 in 2005, 420 in 2006, 340 in 2007 and 338 in 2008. So far, there have only been 174 this year - a fact which Garcia has cited, along with the county's climbing conviction ranking, as evidence of her policy working.
Essex County's statewide ranking, in terms of the percentage of cases initiated as DWIs that were convicted as DWIs, has fluctuated over the same time period. It was 39th of New York's 62 counties in 2004, at 39 percent; 50th in 2005, at 31 percent; dead last in 2006, at 21 percent; and 60th in 2007 at 31 percent. In 2008, the county jumped up to 41st, with a 43 percent conviction rate.
The statewide average in 2008 was 52.25 percent.
Franklin County's policy
There is no set standard in Franklin County as to whether a DWI charge can be reduced to DWAI, said Franklin County DA Derek Champagne, but "I have an unwritten policy that, if there's a BAC over .15 (percent), the ADA needs to have compelling reasons as to why he or she reduced it."
Champagne said he used to have a stricter .12 cutoff years ago but dropped it because "there are always exceptional circumstances. Someone's parent dies, or has a spouse that dies, and they lose their job the same week, and they're the only source of income for the two surviving children in the family, and they're a truck driver. ... Do you say, 'Hey, I have this strict policy, and under no circumstances will I allow this person not to be convicted of DWI?'"
Champagne said he believes the lack of mass transit in the North Country and the possible resulting professional consequences for someone losing a driver's license need to be factored in. He also said he often mandates alcohol treatment as part of the plea bargain, and if someone has to go to rehab to get the charge reduced, "You can say something has been done in a positive direction."
At the same time, Champagne said, he is watching other counties with stricter policies and wouldn't be opposed to adopting them if he sees more evidence of their effectiveness. He said he believes education, reducing underaged drinking and changing cultural attitudes toward driving drunk will reduce instances in the future.
"Especially the underaged drinking, that's the one thing, I think, is signficantly different from years ago," Champagne said. "You have college kids, many of (whom) always make sure to have a designated driver. That's not the way it used to be."
Contact Nathan Brown at 891-2600 ext. 26 or firstname.lastname@example.org.