The 2004 death of an ambitious Louisiana project called the Integrated Criminal Justice Information System also dashed any hope at that time — and, as it turns out, for years to come — for a statewide DWI tracking system that was to be tied to it.
“When it didn’t happen, the impaired driving database didn’t happen either,” Donna Tate, former state executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving Louisiana, recalled Thursday.
Prosecutors, MADD and others say a computer system that allows authorities to more easily verify previous DWI convictions and sentences across the state’s many court jurisdictions would be a strong weapon against repeat drunken-driving offenders.
Alcohol-related crashes claimed 291 lives in Louisiana in 2011. And in May of this year, an alleged drunken driver with three previous DWI arrests killed seven people in a crash in East Feliciana Parish, authorities say.
It’s unclear whether a statewide tracking system would have made a difference in that case. And prosecutors and anti-drunken-driving activists say other factors — such as uneven enforcement of DWI sentencing laws by judges and the social acceptance of driving after drinking — play roles in the problem of repeat offenders.
But the idea of a statewide system is gaining steam again. During the recently concluded session, the state Legislature requested that the mothballed Integrated Criminal Justice Information System policy board reconvene and report its progress to state lawmakers during the 2013 regular session.
The board, chaired by Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Catherine “Kitty” Kimball, is scheduled to gather Aug. 7.
The board last met in 2004, when it awarded Baton Rouge technology company Thinkstream a $1.5 million contract — despite dissenting votes from Kimball and three other board members — to create a network linking the databases of some Louisiana criminal justice agencies. But two months later, after a losing bidder’s appeal, then-Commissioner of Administration Jerry Luke LeBlanc overturned the decision, ruling the board violated its own rules in awarding the contract to Thinkstream.
The network would have enabled the agencies to access each other’s databases for information such as criminal histories, arrest warrants, fingerprints and mug shots, and make the information available to laptop computers in squad cars.The ICJIS board planned to eventually award a $10 million contract to hook up hundreds of law enforcement agencies across the state.
After the problems arose, the board surrendered the $1.5 million federal grant and scrapped the project because the grant was due to expire in February 2005, which did not give the panel enough time to re-evaluate the proposals, pick a winner and spend the money.
The ICJIS board has essentially remained dormant until now.
“We’re frustrated that we don’t have one central database,” East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III said in a recent interview.
In terms of DWI cases, Moore said, a statewide tracking system would reduce the potential for someone to slip through the cracks and be charged as a first-offender, for example, when that person could have been charged as a second-offender.
More accurate information on the front end allows prosecutors to make informed charging decisions, which in turn affects judges’ sentencing decisions, he said.
“The ultimate solution is to have an integrated system” for all crimes, Louisiana District Attorneys Association Executive Director Pete Adams said, adding that such a system could be in place in three to four years.
“I would hope even shorter than that,” Kimball said. “I’m just curious about the financing. I know they had money for it before.”
“I believe we can get there,” added Col. Mike Edmonson, commander of Louisiana State Police and a member of the ICJIS board. “The technology is certainly there.”
Floyd Johnson, state executive director of MADD Louisiana, contends the head-on collision in East Feliciana Parish that killed seven people might have been avoided if a statewide DWI tracking system had been in place.
“That young man may not have been driving or would have been in jail,” Johnson said of 30-year-old Brett Gerald, of Greensburg, who has pleaded innocent to seven counts of vehicular homicide.
State Sen. Jody Amedee, chairman of the Governor’s DWI-Vehicular Homicide Task Force, said Louisiana needs the integrated database but disagrees that the crash could have been prevented if that system had been operational.
“I don’t think that necessarily affected this case,” said Amedee, R-Gonzales. “I don’t think it would have changed the outcome of this situation.”
Amedee, who noted that Gerald faces up to 30 years in prison on each of the seven vehicular homicide counts, said some people would continue to drink and drive even if the penalty were capital punishment.
“People are going to be people, and people are going to do stupid things,” he said. “We just have to find a way to stop the repeat offenders.”
Moore, district attorney for the 19th Judicial District, said a rigorous pretrial intervention program for first-time DWI and underage DUI offenders that his office launched in mid-2009 is cutting down on repeated offenders.
“We think the program is doing really well,” he said. “We think it’s going to have a significant impact.” The one-year program mandates, among other things, a minimum six-week assessment and education program, attendance at a MADD victim impact panel, and use of an ignition interlock device for at least the first six months of the program. Drivers must blow into the device to start their vehicles. If alcohol is detected, the vehicle will not start.
Dusty Guidry, director of pretrial services at Moore’s office, said 12 graduates of the program have been arrested on DWI charges since completing it. Nearly 1,400 people have either graduated from the program or are enrolled, he said.
A complex task
Gerald was arrested in 2004 in Assumption Parish on a count of first-offense DWI and later completed a pretrial diversion program operated by the 23rd Judicial District Attorney’s Office, thereby avoiding a DWI conviction.
Gerald was arrested again in 2008 in East Feliciana Parish on a count of second-offense DWI, but prosecutors charged him with first-offense DWI and later dropped the charge because he refused to perform a Breathalyzer test properly. Prosecutors said that left them with insufficient evidence to pursue the DWI charge. He pleaded no contest to reckless operation and hit-and-run charges and was sentenced to one year of probation.
In 2010, Gerald was arrested in Livingston Parish on a count of second-offense DWI. He was convicted of first-offense DWI and sentenced to one-year probation. He also was required to complete four days of public service work, attend a driving class, undergo a substance abuse evaluation and listen to a victim impact panel.
Tate — the former MADD director who now works for Smart Start of Louisiana, which sells ignition interlock products — said some judges aren’t always following the law in DWI cases. State law says a judge “shall require” that any person convicted of a second or subsequent DWI and placed on probation “shall not operate a motor vehicle during the period of probation unless any vehicle, while being operated by that person, is equipped with a functioning ignition interlock device.”
“Not that many do” follow that requirement, Tate said.
State law also says a judge “shall require as a condition of release on bail that any person who is charged with a second or subsequent” DWI install an ignition interlock device on any vehicle which he operates.
“It’s not being universally applied,” Tate said. “The majority of judges I work with are not aware of it.” She said they do comply with the bail requirement once they are made aware.
Moore, who said he sees nothing improper in the way Gerald’s prior DWI cases were handled, stressed that DWI convictions — not mere arrests — trigger the various penalties for drunken driving. Moore noted that court minutes, a bill of information and fingerprints are needed to substantiate a prior DWI conviction. In older cases or in some smaller communities, those items are not always available, he said. If a prior conviction can’t be substantiated that way, it can’t be used to support a subsequent-offense charge, such as a second- or third-offense DWI.
DWI convictions that are 10 years old cannot be used against a DWI suspect, Moore pointed out. “That’s often frustrating for the public to understand,” he said.
In some cases, Moore said, a person’s large number of DWI arrests could be a product of the fact that the arrests have not been resolved and are still pending.
Adams, the head of the district attorneys association, emphasizes the importance of developing a system that allows prosecutors and judges to check the dispositions of prior cases.
“That affects charging decisions, that affects sentencing,” he said.
But Adams contends, and MADD’s Johnson and others agree, that drunken driving in Louisiana “is a cultural issue as much as a legal issue.”
“It’s going to take a paradigm shift in the attitudes toward drinking and driving,” Johnson said.
“We’ve got to do the best we can to train people and educate people at an early age,” Amedee stated.
Lt. Col. John LeBlanc, executive director of the Louisiana Highway Safety Commission, said alcohol-related fatal crashes in Louisiana dropped from 439 in 2007 to 272 in 2011 while fatalities from those crashes plunged from 487 in 2007 to 291 last year.
“That’s a real good trend,” he said, but added that Louisiana is still above the national average in alcohol-related fatalities.
East Baton Rouge Parish also saw its alcohol-related fatal crashes drop from 26 in 2007 to 16 in 2011, and its alcohol-related fatalities decline from 30 in 2007 to 19 last year, he said.
“Gradually our culture is changing,” he said.