Drunk driving is a gamble that can lead to injury or death, but the risk could also soon include higher costs for those arrested and charged with the crime.
Several bills proposed this legislative session take aim at defendants in DUI deferred prosecution or diversion programs. Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 8 would mandate the use of an ignition interlock system for people who enter those programs. An ignition interlock is a device installed in a vehicle that aims to prevent an intoxicated person from driving by requiring them to pass a breath test before the vehicle can be started. The cost of installation and a monthly service fee falls on the defendant.
Alabama DUI law already requires some first-time offenders and all repeat offenders to use an ignition interlock system upon conviction. These bills would expand that mandate to defendants who enter a conditional guilty plea in order to complete a DUI diversion program. These programs are similar to drug court and involve extensive court monitoring and classes, but allow defendants the chance to avoid having a DUI conviction on their record if they successfully complete the program.
Jim Ransom, a former police officer, is now a criminal defense attorney based in Pelham who specializes in DUI and a member of the National College for DUI Defense. He said diversion programs help a lot of people change their behavior and avoid the stigma of a DUI conviction, but the programs can be costlier than being convicted of a DUI.
“There’s somebody out there taking a little bit of money from you everywhere you go when you get arrested for DUI,” he said.
Between fines, court fees and the cost of an attorney, a first-time DUI conviction can cost a defendant anywhere between $5000 to $10,000, according to Ransom. Diversion programs, administered by courts in individual counties and municipalities, can include additional fees for entrance, evaluations and supervision. Adding a mandatory ignition interlock device would drive up the price for program participants. The legislation includes an indigent fund for defendants who do not have the means to pay the cost.
Sens-O-Lock of America is one of four approved ignition interlock providers in Alabama. Craig Lotz, Sens-O-Lock CEO said a vehicle with a standard ignition system would run about $110 for interlock setup and installation and then would carry monthly fees for lease and service totaling $80. Lotz said an interlock requirement for DUI diversion programs is a good thing.
“There are a lot of people losing their lives as a result of someone’s poor decision,” he said.
Lotz explained that all interlock devices do the same fundamental thing- require a passed breath test before a car will start. The vehicle’s ignition will only fully activate after the driver’s breath alcohol level registers at less than .02 percent. The devices also require periodic tests, called rolling retests, while the driver is behind the wheel. All the breath test results with an ignition interlock system are recorded and monitored by the courts.
“It’s not a silver bullet,” Lotz said. “If somebody really wants to circumvent the system, they’re going to borrow somebody else’s car. This is about narrowing the risk, about mitigating that risk.”
In 2012, Alabama became the 50th state with the mandatory use of ignition interlock devices for DUI convictions. It's not required in every case, but for first time offenders, a device is mandatory if their blood alcohol levels were .15 percent or higher, their accident caused an injury, if a child under 14 was in the vehicle or if they refuse to submit to a breath test.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) supports the use of interlock devices and has been instrumental in pressuring states to pass tougher DUI legislation, including requirements for ignition interlocks. On its website, MADD reports that interlocks reduce repeat offenses by two-thirds and reduce fatalities by 15 percent.
But WBRC found drunk driving fatalities have increased in Alabama since the 2012 law requiring an ignition interlock device for some first-time offenders.
Accident data from ALEA showed an increase in drunk driving fatalities every year between 2013-2016. Data for 2017 was incomplete.
Pamela Morton, Victim Service Coordinator for MADD’s Alabama office said the organization was extremely disappointed in any increase in drunk driving deaths, but is working with the Alabama legislature to improve ignition interlock laws. MADD believes ignition interlocks should be ordered as part of any plea agreement or diversion program.
“Every drunk driving death is devastating and 100 percent preventable,” Morton said. “MADD believes every drunk driving offender should use an ignition interlock for a minimum of six months and that they should be removed only after two consecutive months with no attempts to drive after drinking. Their increased use in Alabama will result in fewer tragedies,” she said.
Nationally, drunk driving fatalities have fallen by a third in the last three decades, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Still, drunk driving crashes claim more than 10,000 lives per year, about 29 people per day.
(WBRC) - Ransom said some good may come with ignition interlocks, but in his opinion, the devices are just another way to get in defendants' pockets. He said the majority of his clients are first-time offenders who comply with all the requirements by the courts, but repeat offenders will find a way around the rules.
"It's just like anything else," Ransom said. "Laws don't prevent crime, they punish them."