Majority of drunk drivers in Erie County don’t face stiff punishment

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – Drunk driving penalties in New York State are tougher now than ever before. But the vast majority of drivers charged with DWI in Erie County never face those punishments.

Around 2,600 people in Erie County are arrested each year for misdemeanor DWI. But only 17 percent of them are convicted of that charge.

News 4 wanted to find out why.

John Jankowiak was first arrested on drunk driving charges one year ago, when police say he hit a utility pole, ran from them, and refused to take a breath test.

District Attorney Frank Sedita told News 4 last October, “He urinates on the floor. When confronted about the urinating on the floor, he denies urinating on the floor then continues urinating on the floor. That’s how drunk this guy was.”

But the judge in the case did not convict Jankowiak of misdemeanor DWI, the crime he was charged with. Instead, Jankowiak’s charges were dropped to the lesser violation called “driving impaired.”

At the time, Sedita was furious. When asked if he thought Jankowiak learned his lesson, the DA laughed and said, “I don’t know what lesson he was being taught.”

Now, seven months later, Sedita believes judges in Western New York are more lenient than the rest of the state when it comes to misdemeanor DWI. The numbers back him up.

In 2012, 83 percent of drivers in Erie County charged with misdemeanor DWI had their charge reduced or dismissed.

That ranks Erie County near the bottom of the state for convicting drunk drivers on their original charge – 52nd out of 62 counties. Several of Western New York’s other counties also rank low.

Defense attorneys say the DA’s own plea policy leads to a lot of the reductions, saying it’s usually common practice for a defendant to be offered a plea deal for driving while impaired instead of driving while intoxicated.

If it’s a first-time offense, there was no accident, and the driver’s blood alcohol content is not above .13 percent, Erie County prosecutors will usually allow the driver to plead guilty to driving impaired instead of driving while intoxicated.

But Sedita says there are many more serious cases where prosecutors take the case to trial, and it’s the judge who decides to show mercy. He says he believes judges want to give a first-time offender a break.

To understand why prosecutors and anti-drunk driving advocates see that as a problem, you have to understand the difference in punishment.

Misdemeanor DWI is a crime for which state lawmakers are constantly pushing for more consequences.

Driving while impaired isn’t even a crime – it’s a traffic violation that carries with it a fine and suspended license. It is the same level crime as a speeding ticket or running a stop sign.

Elizabeth Obad, President of Erie County Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said, “It’s a bad thing becasue I think they need to come down harder on them the first time so they don’t re-offend.”

Obad was among those who fought hard to require ignition interlock devices to be installed when people are convicted of DWI. It requires the offender to blow into a breathalyzer before starting a vehicle.

But if a driver’s charge is dropped down to driving impaired, it’s not required. And if the person convicted of driving impaired is arrested on drunk driving charges again, they are technically not a repeat offender and cannot be charged with a felony.

Through Freedom of Information requests, News 4 obtained conviction rates for each city, town and village court in Erie County.

The Town of Amherst saw the most misdemeanor DWI cases in 2012 at 443. Judges there convicted 16.9 percent on the original charge. The City of Buffalo convicted 15.6 percent of its 313 misdemeanor dwi cases.

The towns of Boston, Grand Island, Lancaster, Newstead and the villages of Kenmore and Lancaster all convicted less than 10 percent of DWI defendants on their original charge.

John Sullivan of Erie County Stop-DWI compiles drunk driving statistics. He believes some judges are reluctant to convict because of the steep penalties included, and Sedita agrees.

“There is some sympathy for a drunken driver. A one-time offender, a first-time offender who never had any trouble before,” Sullivan said.

Sedita dded, “But what we’re seeing in reality is some judges see the sanctions as so punitive, and it’s also going to require them, the judge, to continue monitoring the defendant, that it’s a whole lot easier just to do the impaired. So it’s kind of having the opposite of the intended effect.”

Which is an ironic effect in the fight for stiffer drunk driving penalties. But the numbers are something advocates want to see reversed.

Sedita wants to point out, there is a positive statistic. He says 96 percent of DWI cases end up with a conviction of some sort, so even though most of them get reduced, very few people are walking away with no punishment.

But the punishment is not what the original charges called for, which advocates have worked on stiffening.

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