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By the numbers
140: Number of Indiana fatalities linked to alcohol-impaired driving in 2011
20: Percentage of 2011 Indiana collisions linked to alcohol-impaired driving
15 times: The number of impaired drivers killed in accidents vs. drivers where alcohol was not involved
749: Number of Allen County drivers involved in alcohol-related crashes in 2011
488: Number of those drivers tested for impairment
361: Number of those tested who had a blood-alcohol level higher than the 0.08 limit
Swikar Patel | The Journal Gazette
Indiana State Trooper Clint Hetrick stops a motorist during his overnight patrol.

The stop is only the start

DWI has ramifications beyond legal system

After an elected official’s vehicle was pulled over last summer, plenty of attention focused on the traffic stop and what followed. But the incident wasn’t typical of what happens when a suspected drunk driver is stopped. For many, it’s the beginning of a long – and costly – tangle with the legal system, frequently the only experience many Hoosiers will ever have with the criminal justice system.

The process varies from state to state and even from county to county. But an Allen County motorist who refuses to submit to a police-ordered Breathalyzer test today faces a court-ordered blood test – and much more serious consequences if the test shows the driver was intoxicated. Even a first-time conviction for driving while intoxicated is a criminal offense. Most agree it should carry a stiff penalty.

And the scope of the consequences and the repercussions for a first-time offender – even one eager to satisfy the court’s requirements – is broader than you might expect.

“What people are surprised at are the consequences beyond the criminal justice system,” said Allen County Deputy Prosecutor Michael McAlexander, noting the implications for employment and more.

Here’s the rundown.

The traffic stop

A motorist stopped on suspicion of driving while intoxicated faces a dilemma from the start: Consultation with a lawyer isn’t allowed, according to Patrick Arata, a Fort Wayne attorney whose practice is mostly devoted to representing drivers facing driving while intoxicated (DWI) charges.

“People don’t know whether they should (submit to a Breathalyzer test); they can’t ask anyone for advice,” he said. “Sometimes they refuse, then they get the warrant. By refusing, they lose their license automatically – it’s a tough deal.”

Field sobriety tests for coordination are another problem. Arata said the tests invariably discriminate against women, who might have been wearing heels when stopped and who are at a disadvantage in displaying balance if they are not allowed to remove them. Weight differences and inner-ear problems also play a part.

“It favors athletes over dumb klutzes; 21-year-olds over 60-year-olds,” he said.

Administration of the field test is often an area where defense attorneys look to negotiate an agreement.

The charges

In Indiana, a motorist whose blood-alcohol content registers at or higher than 0.08 is subject to at least a Class C misdemeanor. A blood-alcohol content of 0.15 or higher is subject to at least a Class A misdemeanor and increased to a Class D felony if the driver had a passenger younger than 18 in the vehicle. Where the arrest is made and other factors determine whether jail time is involved.

“Everyone who gets charged gets one night in jail, on the night they are charged,” McAlexander said. “We have not had a mandatory jail sentence for first-time offenders.”

A subsequent arrest, however, nets an automatic five-day jail sentence, and two prior convictions mean a mandatory 10-day sentence. Some Indiana counties, however, routinely impose a jail sentence for a first-time conviction.

License suspension

A driver who fails a chemical test will face a minimum 90-day license suspension, but driving privileges can be suspended up to 180 days. Those who refuse a Breathalyzer test can face a one-year suspension.

“The license suspension hurts a lot of people,” Arata, the attorney, said. “A lot of people will lose their jobs because of it.”

Employers who hire workers in clinical settings are increasingly rejecting anyone with a DWI charge, McAlexander said. Anyone whose job requires a commercial driver’s license is likely to face termination.

Indiana allows some first-time offenders to apply for probationary driving privileges, but only after a 30-day suspension. The court may require the installation of an ignition interlock device, which tests blood-alcohol level before the car can be started.

Fees associated with the devices, McAlexander notes, are paid for by the driver.

Court-ordered counseling

A common requirement in DWI cases is mandatory counseling for substance abuse, at the offender’s expense. The offender also is required to sign a form acknowledging a counselor can share information with the court.

Is the value of the counseling experience compromised when medical privilege is waived?

David Kaplan, chief professional officer with the 52,000-member American Counseling Association, said that such a provision is routine and that it does have the potential to compromise the value of the experience. It is ethical, however, when informed consent is given.

“In most cases, the client is the person sitting in front of us,” Kaplan said. “At times, the client is not the person sitting in front of you; it may be the court.”

In such cases, counselors must advise that the court is the client and that anything the offender says may be shared with the court, but they also must advise of the ramifications of not talking with a counselor.

Cost considerations

Financial implications of an arrest are great. In Allen County, for example, there’s a $200 alcohol countermeasures fee, plus a $200 fine. Arata said the court costs generally amount to about $630. And that does not include the cost of hiring an attorney.

But the costs continue with counseling expenses and, in some cases, drug testing ordered as a condition of probation. If a court approves a probationary license with an ignition interlock device, the driver bears those costs.

Then there’s the auto insurance. A DWI conviction doesn’t inherently cause rates to rise, but its effect on a driver’s record makes it necessary to buy high-risk insurance. Not all companies offer it, and it comes at great expense.

In addition, a license suspension triggers requirements set by the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles for reinstatement, with fees attached.

Avoiding the consequences

When it comes to first-time offenders, the emphasis is on education, said McAlexander, the deputy prosecutor.

“If people understand – please, don’t drink and drive. It’s just inherently dangerous,” McAlexander said.

“The goal is to not have them come back into the criminal justice system. That’s why we put such an emphasis on education. We recognize that not every program will work for every person.”