Tougher DUI laws, but concerns persist

A Delaware State Police trooper works during a multi-agency DUI Checkpoint Strikeforce campaign in 2018. Submitted photo/Gene Shaner

DOVER — It’s been nearly a decade since Delaware’s impaired driving laws toughened and they’ve been an effective deterrent, according to the former legislator who spearheaded efforts in 2011.

Elevated penalties with each DUI conviction are a must, former state Rep. Helene Keeley said last week.

“I think statistics will show that most people arrested decide ‘I never want to go through this again’ and learn from it,” said Ms. Keeley, who sponsored legislation in 2011 focused on treatment while increasing the repercussions of each felony offense.

“Unfortunately there’s a small amount of people who at some point fall into the category of having a serious problem, an illness that must be addressed from a treatment standpoint.”

So significant DUI concerns remain in the First State.

On May 12 in Lewes, DSP made separate arrests on fifth and seventh offense DUI charges; a motorist was charged with a seventh offense in Seaford on May 3.

From 2017-19, felony DUI arrests by Delaware State Police rose from 358 to 409 to 428. Drivers face felony sentencing guidelines starting with a third conviction.

From Jan. 1 to May 19 this year, DSP made 116 felony DUI arrests, a slower pace than the three previous years in a time with fewer motorists as the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in March.

There were three seventh offense arrests through May 19 and four sixth offenses, along with 13 fifth offenses. There were 96 third and fourth offenses combined.

Overall DUI convictions dropped in each county every year from 2017-19. There were 1,199 cases in 2017, followed by 1,103 in 2018 and 958 last year.

“Fortunately we are seeing successes in Delaware — in (Kent and New Castle) counties, DUIs have fallen for years, and (Sussex County) is making real progress in the right direction,” said Delaware Attorney General Kathy Jennings.

Sussex County had 1,557 guilty cases in the past three years followed by New Castle with 989 and Kent 714.

The AG’s office pointed to progress in Sussex with the institution of case reviews through the Court of Common Pleas in 2019, along with expanded speedy trial rights.

“We believe these changes are a major step forward in minimizing the impact of procedural and other technical problems in Sussex County’s DUI cases and continue to hope and expect that this will mean more cases are resolved based on the facts, that more people access life-saving treatment, and that Sussex County roads become safer in the long run,” spokesman Mat Marshal said.

AAA-Mid Atlantic spokesman Ken Grant cited a study indicating more than 95 percent of drivers believe that drinking and driving is “very or extremely dangerous.

“However, almost 11 percent admitted to having done so in the past 30 days,” he said.

Crashes involving alcohol impairment driving are trending down nationally, but Mr. Grant cautioned “The danger is still there and we have to maintain all efforts to educate the public and continue enforcing the laws.”

Time for treatment

When the felony DUI process begins, Delaware law allows for lessening incarceration through entering treatment programs focused on getting to the core of the problem.

“I’d like to think with the graduated approach the ability to address alcoholism and substance abuse issues that will teach them at a minimum that if they’re going to drink, don’t get behind the wheel,” said Deputy Attorney General David Hume, who has prosecuted DUIs since 2000.

“If there’s been a change in society, it’s that there’s a greater need to understand the basis of why people are drinking and assess their mental health and substance abuse.

“Twenty years ago people assumed that ‘This guy is an alcoholic and they just drink too much.

“Society is much more accepting now of the approach of how do we get to the source of this person’s drinking.”

Following assessment by the Delaware Department of Correction, offenders enter into various treatment programs to begin the hoped-for recovery process.

Delaware Department of Correction inmates take part in a treatment program. Submitted photo/DOC

“Rehabilitation is a fundamental part of our mission and that is why behavioral healthcare inside our prisons, including treatment for those who struggle with alcoholism and other substance use disorders, is so important to supporting sobriety, saving lives, and reducing recidivism,” DOC Commissioner Claire DeMatteis said.

In 2019, there were 136 successful discharges from DOC treatment programs, and there were no unsuccessful discharges. The 90-day programs are administered by the DOC’s behavioral healthcare vendor Centurion Behavioral Health.

The DOC described its approach as “multidimensional” when treatment is ordered and said it is guided by certain principles:

• Driving under the influence of alcohol and other drugs is both a legal and safety issue that impacts the entire community, and also an individual addiction problem that requires treatment.

• Substance Use Disorders have biological, social and psychological elements. People who enter treatment programs may have multiple needs and life issues that not only need attention but provide a basis for establishing an effective therapeutic relationship. These issues are amplified for offenders whose DUIs have led to incarceration.

• Alcohol and drug abuse are maladaptive coping behaviors.

• Alcohol and drug abuse can cause significant changes in brain functioning that impairs judgment and makes achieving and sustaining abstinence difficult.

• People enter treatment for a wide variety of reasons, at various stages of abuse/dependence and at varying levels of readiness. In order to be effective, interventions need to take issues of readiness and motivation into account.

With the aim of enhancing motivation for change and developing adaptive coping strategies, inmates are assessed individually as a treatment plan is developed:

• Phase one engages the participant in clarifying his/her values, completing a cost-benefit analysis and setting treatment goals.

• The second phase of treatment teaches cognitive behavioral interventions, changing thoughts through cognitive restructuring, and managing feeling through emotional regulation.

• The final phase focuses on understanding their behavior patterns, problem solving strategies, choosing behavior responses, and planning for future success.

Moving forward

While all DUI sentences remain on the driving record for a minimum of five years, the path to recovery can begin upon conviction.

First-time offenders can complete an alcohol evaluation and enroll in a designated alcohol program while applying for an ignition interlock device, allowing them to regain their license after a month with driving limitations.

Then-Gov. Jack Markell signed the IID legislation in 2014.

Delaware currently has 576 active interlock ignition device customers allowed to drive once sobriety is confirmed.

The interlock device requires a would-be motorist to breathe into a sensor that can detect alcohol. Offenders must pay to have the device installed.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, installed interlocks reduce repeat offenses by about 70%.

The CDC said all states have ignition interlock programs, but only about 20% of arrestees have them installed. Delaware was the 23rd state to require ignition interlock devices for all DUI convictions, Ms. Keeley said in 2014.

“The ultimate goal is to keep drunk drivers off the road,” she said.

“The facts show that ignition interlock devices work to reduce drunk-driving recidivism, and fewer drunk drivers mean fewer drunk driving fatalities. This new law will help to continue that fight.”

Besides a $70 installation cost, there’s a monthly $75 calibration fee as well as any other fees that may be required in the case. Some vehicles such as hybrids may require a greater expense based on more complex installation needs.

Felony DUI penalties were strengthened in 2011 through House Bill 168 legislation signed by Gov. Markell. The newly-enacted law increased incarceration and rehabilitation time beginning with the third offense and each subsequent penalties.

The bill sponsored by then-Rep. Ms. Keeley, D-Wilmington South, significantly focused on reducing drunken driving through drug and alcohol treatment programs.

For the seventh offense and beyond a 5- to 15-year prison sentence was made possible, along with a 60-month license revocation. While a court can suspend half the incarceration time, at least half the sentence must be served while participating in an alcohol treatment program.

Ms. Keeley said she worked with the late Joseph R. “Beau” Biden III when he was Attorney General and passing the legislation proved to be a smooth process. While some attorneys who represent clients had concerns, “They asked fair questions” that deserved attention.
A badly damaged vehicle resulting from a fatal drunken driving incident in Newport was stationed nearby as Gov. Markell signed the bill during a ceremony outside the Minquas Fire Department.

“I don’t know how much starker you can get,” he said, referring to the car. “This really pretty much says it all.”