Inside Report: Officials trying to track repeat DWI offenders

As of today, some convicted drunken drivers in Louisiana may be getting off a little easy.

But that may change soon.

After trying for years to establish a statewide DWI database, state officials have come up with a way to fill the slippery, ever-thinning crack in the system that leaves open the possibility for prosecutors to lose track of someone’s DWI convictions. Prosecutors may have unknowingly undercharged multiple offenders across the state, indirectly allowing people who should have been in prison or stripped of driving privileges to get behind the wheel again.

In its first meeting of the new year on Jan. 9, the Integrated Criminal Justice Information System Policy Board approved a long-awaited legislation proposal that — if eventually sponsored, passed and signed into law — would require officers issuing misdemeanor summonses for suspicion of DWI to fingerprint the alleged drunken driver upon arrest. Authorities would then copy the fingerprint onto a card and mail it to State Police headquarters in Baton Rouge for lab analysts, who would then feed the print into a database. This would set off a chain of automated events making the prints available to qualified officials nationally.

Normally, as is the case in East Baton Rouge Parish and even most small parishes, people arrested on suspicion of DWI have their prints and a photo taken when being booked into a parish jail, which would set off the data-sharing chain.

But if a local jail is too crowded with felony offenders, officers may be forced to let someone arrested in a misdemeanor first- or second-offense DWI go home after being processed — but not booked — in a jail, said Capt. Doug Cain, a State Police spokesman.

In such instances, whatever happens with that person’s case, be it a quick dismissal or a conviction, may be invisible to prosecutors handling later cases involving the same person. Without the fingerprint, the arrest will never make it into the system, which in turn will hide the eventual ruling from a prosecutor who may be tasked with filing charges against that person weeks, months or years after an earlier arrest.

For example, let’s say John Doe tries to drive home blitzed one night from a bar, but a roadside ditch gets in his way. Officers arrest him on suspicion of DWI, and months later, a prosecutor convicts him on a first-offense DWI charge.

Surprisingly, Doe is relieved. He really should have been charged with second-offense DWI — but because his first conviction followed a summons and never made its way into the Louisiana Automated Criminal History Database, the prosecutor never found out.

These days, it’s exceedingly rare for people not to be booked into a jail on suspicion of DWI, even for a first offense, Cain said.

But the possibility is there.

“People can fall through the cracks because of the way the system is currently set up,” said Hillar Moore III, East Baton Rouge Parish’s district attorney. “And this (proposed legislation) is just a relief system that’s designed to do away with those cracks.”

Granted, officials still must find someone to sponsor the bill, the Legislature must pass it and the governor must sign it before a mere suggestion becomes law. But ICJIS board members Robert Mehrtens, the executive director of the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement, and Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, both expect the amendment to fly through the law-creation process in the upcoming session.

Ben Wallace covers law enforcement for The Advocate. He can be reached at bwallace@theadvocate.com or on Twitter at @_BenWallace.