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November 27, 2012

Southfield council debates drunken driving ordinance

Do ‘super drunk’ penalties save lives or halt them?

By Jessica Strachan
C & G Staff Writer

SOUTHFIELD — Southfield city officials all agree that drunken driving is a serious issue that needs to be stopped in order to protect lives. Where they differ, however, is if stricter punishment translates into a healthier lifestyle choice for convicted motorists.

The issue was brought before council during the Nov. 19 meeting, when Deputy City Attorney Susan Ward-Witkowski introduced the idea of a proposed resolution that would allow Southfield to prosecute drivers with a high blood-alcohol content to the fullest extent of the law.

The statewide “super drunk” amendment, introduced in 2010, enhanced penalties for drivers found with a blood alcohol content (BAC) level of .17 or higher. In Michigan, it is a crime to drive with a BAC higher than .08, and according to Ward-Witkowski, significant levels of intoxication have translated into more significant penalties around Michigan.

“Cities can now opt to prosecute for the enhanced drunk driving violations. … In essence, it just increases the penalties a violator would suffer,” she explained to council. “It puts a direct correlation between the level of alcohol that was consumed and the penalty that could be imposed.”

Ward-Witkowski said that the penalties nearly double, with “super drunk” violators facing up to 180 days in jail, versus 90 days, and fines of up to $700, compared to $500. These are the maximum penalties, all at the discretion of the judge, she noted.

Council member Sidney Lantz cautioned that, while effective penalties are important, a tougher reality in the judicial system poses potential obstacles for drunken drivers to be rehabilitated.

Judges too often sentence drunken drivers to “hell,” he said, instead of helping them.

“I’m not arguing that there needs to be penalties … but there are times that I know of when the judges here (sent) it to circuit court,” he said. “Now let me tell you what happens in circuit court: They don’t go to jail for 90 days, they go to jail for a minimum of six months more. And they ruin people’s lives. Instead of giving them help, they incarcerate them.”

Lantz said the cycle of jail sentences — from the expenses of being jailed to then possibly being tethered and on probation — is flawed when it comes to helping offenders.

“Why incarcerate them? Why not give them medical help?” he questioned.

Mayor Brenda Lawrence suggested that any proposed ordinance include a policy that drunken drivers must seek help.

To that, Ward-Witkowski said that, while that isn’t written into citywide policy, resources like alcohol awareness are the norm in courtrooms.

“They do so much in terms of trying to get people to understand how significant and dangerous this is,” she said. “We see that every day; they are getting to that point. Obviously that’s better than just throwing everyone in jail. … If people in our court need help, they get it.”

Councilman Myron Frasier added that, when Southfield police write a ticket and it goes to the 46th District Court, first-time violators are sent to the Human Services Department to go through counseling.

Repeat offenders who have a history of drunken driving might not be offered the same resources, council agreed, and Ward-Witkowski believes that the “super drunk” penalties target those who pose the most risk.

For the first-time offenders who may be subjected to the stricter penalties, Lantz expressed concern that violators who need to be “helped” may just slip through the cracks. 

“The judges do not care; they incarcerate them instead of giving them help, and it wrecks their lives,” Lantz said. He also noted pressures from advocacy groups to enforce harsher penalties on drunken drivers or situations when special interests become involved in the re-election of judges.

“There are so many people in jail who shouldn’t be,” he said.

At the end of the day, Southfield officers can still write “super drunk” violations, according to Ward-Witkowski, which bypass the local court and go to the Oakland County Circuit Court — a loss in revenue for the city. She added that it’s not uncommon to see a driver ticketed in Southfield for more than triple the allowed BAC level, though a majority of cases are less than .17.

Council agreed to discuss the matter further and then vote at an upcoming meeting, expressing clear concern to “get to the bottom of the story” with local drivers caught under the influence, while still keeping the city safe.

“I’m totally understanding that there’s a human side to this, and you have to take everything into consideration,” Councilman Jeremy Moss commented, “but when you get somebody who’s that inebriated behind the wheel, there’s a huge risk to our public safety, and there has to be a consequence to that.”

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Jessica Strachan at jstrachan@candgnews.com or at (586)279-1108.