DWI handling stirs old issue
Over the past three or so years, the 15th Judicial District Attorney’s Office in Lafayette allowed at least 60 people to fast-track their DWI arrests from conviction to sentencing in as little as a month, court documents show — an irony considering the office has been questioned in the past for allowing other people to sit in jail for long periods without being charged in misdemeanor and felony cases not involving DWIs.
District Attorney Mike Harson has confirmed that at least one case involving the fast-tracked DWI pleas was taken by the FBI when it searched two offices at the District Attorney’s Office in late February. Harson has also said the majority of cases taken during the search involved DWIs.
The 15th Judicial District also covers Vermilion and Acadia parishes, but the FBI search warrants were executed only at the Lafayette Parish office.
A conviction for a DWI offense can more than double a person’s insurance premiums.
There are also secondary requirements and expenses during the misdemeanor probationary period, which in DWI cases is usually imposed instead of jail time. Those requirements can include 32 hours of community service and the cost of enrolling in substance-abuse counseling and driver improvement classes.
So what happens when that probation period is removed?
Those who received the plea deals did so without the help of an attorney, court records show, brokering deals that allowed them to complete their probation requirements before appearing before a judge, who in turn agreed to reduce or eliminate the probation period at the time of sentencing.
The Advocate has found that some of those cases involved potentially fraudulent community service documents submitted to the court as a condition of probation.
Some of the documents contained community service hours that were completed days or even months before the person’s arrest. Also, some documents allegedly were signed by a person who no longer worked for the agency when the community service hours were completed.
After the newspaper’s findings were published, the District Attorney’s Office announced it was conducting an internal investigation to determine if any laws were violated in the submission of these documents.
As for the fast-tracking practice, Harson has said this type of plea was not advertised, but was available to those who knew about it.
He has repeatedly defended the plea deals as being legal, adding that the entire process was ultimately approved by a judge.
Legality aside, the fact that the service was available in the first place is unsettling.
The program seems to undermine one of the core reasons for probation: to ensure that offenders complete certain conditions and refrain from criminal activity during probation, which for misdemeanors is up to six months on a first offense.
When probation is removed, the criminal justice system would appear to lose its ability to govern an offender’s behavior because a judge would be unable to revoke the probation should the offender commit a new crime.
Furthermore, the speed with which these cases were handled should raise a few eyebrows. The District Attorney’s Office is only a few years removed from an issue involving the untimely filing of charges against people sitting in jail for 45 to 60 days but not yet charged.
Harson has admitted that his office had no system in place to notify prosecutors about when charges should be filed against people held in jail but not yet charged.
It seems unfair that certain DWI defendants are fast-tracked while other misdemeanor and felony offenders had to stay in jail without being charged because they could not afford to post bail.
Jason Brown covers courts for the Acadiana bureau. He can be reached at email@example.com.