Reducing Drunk Driving - The Missourian: Opinion

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Reducing Drunk Driving

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Posted: Friday, May 2, 2014 2:41 pm

Police will be out in force the next two weeks looking for drunk drivers in Franklin County. 

The stepped up enforcement will coincide with prom and graduation season in this area. It is part of a countywide effort to crack down on impaired drivers, especially those under the age of 21. 

 Missouri has a zero tolerance law which means that anyone under 21 caught drinking will have their license suspended if they have even a trace of alcohol in their system. 

But police recognize tough laws with tough penalties aren’t always a deterrent for young people. Statistics reveal young people continue to make up a significant proportion of drunk drivers causing traffic accidents. 

Police say that from 2011 and 2013, 85 people were killed and 318 seriously injured in Missouri roadway crashes involving an impaired driver under the age of 21. Obviously our state’s zero tolerance law didn’t dissuade these young people from drinking and driving. 

The reality is our existing laws — which have gotten significantly tougher over the last 10 years or so — don’t always serve as a deterrent to drinking and driving. 

Need proof? Last year, law enforcement agencies across our state arrested approximately 34,000 people on drunk driving charges. 

Need further proof? This week, one of St. Louis’ top criminal defense lawyers was arrested on suspicion of driving while intoxicated following an accident where police say he crossed the centerline and crashed his Bentley into another car. 

The arrest occurred just hours after the attorney won an acquittal for a client accused of molesting a child while drunk in a high-profile case. 

The lawyer denied he was drunk but instead was fatigued from working long hours preparing for his client’s trial. 

Our tougher laws and the potential suspension or revocation of his law license didn’t deter the attorney from allegedly driving under the influence. 

The reality is stricter drunk driving laws haven’t solved the problem — for young people, adults, attorneys or repeat offenders.  Nationally, there are still about 10,000 fatalities a year as a result of drunken driving. That comes out to about 30 a day. Those statistics don’t include the injured.

Some argue we need even tougher laws to deter drunk driving, especially for repeat offenders. An idea that is gaining traction in other states is using the civil code to combat drunk driving.  

Some states are considering instituting civil forfeiture actions against anyone who uses his car while intoxicated and remove the vehicle from his possession — because it was used as an instrument in a crime.

Proponents of civil forfeiture, including Louis Lombardi, an attorney in Pennsylvania, argue that what makes it an effective deterrent is that it is not tied to the criminal prosecution of a case. In other words, you would not have to wait for that process to play out. 

Upon an arrest for drunken driving, the vehicle would be kept in police custody and a parallel (but separate) action would be initiated in civil court to give the government the right to keep the car permanently.

Civil forfeiture is not a new concept. Many jurisdictions already employ it for a myriad of crimes. Lombardi argues the concept just needs to be expanded across the country to include those who drive their cars while intoxicated — especially for repeat offenders.

If someone faced the possibility of losing their vehicle outright in addition to criminal penalties would it cause them to pause before getting behind the wheel? 

We think it would, especially if it was a Bentley.

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