published Sunday, January 19th, 2014

Walker County generous with DUI reductions

If you get arrested for driving drunk in Walker County, there's a very good chance that you won't get convicted for breaking a driving law.

A Chattanooga Times Free Press analysis of all 154 cases filed in the county's state court in 2012 and 2013 shows that 68 defendants saw their charges reduced last year from DUI to disorderly conduct, a nondriving charge that doesn't affect whether a driver gets to keep his license.

Charges against two other drivers were reduced to driving without exercising due care, and one charge was reduced to reckless driving.

By comparison, 83 DUI defendants in Walker County were convicted on that charge in 2013.

The Times Free Press looked at cases filed over the course of two years because cases sometimes take longer than 12 months to play out. Charges filed in 2013 but not concluded were not counted in this analysis.

While no studies have examined whether Walker reduces DUI charges more often than other North Georgia counties, some criminal justice academics and a member of a drunken driving education organization say the rate in Walker County seems higher than in many places.

The rate means different things to different people.

To some scholars, the reductions are a reprieve for overcrowded jails and a sign of mercy for first-time offenders. To an executive director at Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the reductions are weak and irresponsible and condone deadly behavior.

And to some defense attorneys, the reductions are simply a fact of the criminal justice system. Because defendants are presumed innocent, these attorneys say, prosecutors face a steep challenge to prove -- beyond a reasonable doubt -- that the arrest was legal and the driver was actually drunk.

Bill Rhyne, the solicitor in Walker County State Court, says the decision to reduce a DUI to disorderly conduct does not start with him. The solicitor is the prosecutor in Georgia's state courts, which mostly handle misdemeanors, traffic offenses and preliminary hearings for felony cases.

Rhyne said the officer who made the initial drunken-driving arrest is usually the one who recommends reducing the charges, often after talking with the driver's defense attorney.

If Rhyne approves the deal, State Court Judge Billy Mullinax is asked to sign off on it.

"By the time it gets to us," Rhyne said, "the recommendation is already in place."

Mullinax did not return multiple calls seeking comment.

When asked whether his deputies recommend reducing DUI charges, Walker County Sheriff Steve Wilson said he could not comment on every case his department has handled.

Every arrest is different, he said. Every circumstance surrounding those arrests is different. However, Wilson added, the deputy who makes the arrest usually does have a say in how Rhyne prosecutes the case.

But Georgia State Patrol Sgt. James McConathy said his troopers would never do that. McConathy is in charge of GSP Post 41 in LaFayette, and his officers make many DUI arrests in Walker County.

"We're not supposed to reduce anything," he said. "That's all handled through the court system. They're the ones who do all the wheeling and dealing."

Adam Cain, an Athens, Ga., attorney who has represented DUI clients in Walker County, says he makes his plea deals with the solicitor.

"Every solicitor in the state of Georgia is well-versed," he said.

Still, Rhyne says that as solicitor, he merely agrees to the officers' recommendations. He said the reason for the reduction to disorderly conduct is simple: "It would not adversely affect one's license."

Georgia law defines disorderly conduct as actions that make someone else fear he will be hurt or his property will be damaged, or cause another person to respond violently.

In other counties, prosecutors often reduce DUIs to reckless driving, which could affect a person's license.

Like in other states, Georgia driving infractions are scored on points. A reckless driving conviction will earn four points. If a driver accumulates 15 points in two years, the state will suspend his or her license.

A DUI arrest leads to an automatic suspension: 120 days on first offense, 18 months on second. The third offense brings a five-year suspension. The arrest also leads to mandatory jail time: at least 10 days the first time, at least 90 days for a second offense and at least 120 days the third time.

Barry Martin, Georgia's state director for MADD, said prosecutors like Rhyne should not serve punishments that allow DUI offenders to keep driving. Even first-time offenders deserve jail time and a license suspension, he said.

According to a 2008 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study, 92 percent of drunken drivers involved in fatal crashes have never been convicted before.

Martin, who said MADD is looking into similar DUI reductions in Chattooga County, does not understand how a drunken driving charge can become a nondriving offense.

"DUIs start out as a moving violation," he said. "A vehicle is involved. It's a whole different code section in the Georgia laws."

But getting an actual DUI conviction is not easy, some say. Jessica Gabel, a law professor at Georgia State University who served as a public defender in northern California for four years, said attorneys can often cast doubt on a DUI arrest.

They call into question the accuracy of Breathlyzers used to measure someone's blood alcohol content. They challenge whether the arresting officer conducted every element of the field sobriety test properly. They say the driver never showed any reason to be pulled over in the first place.

In general, Gabel said, courts should reduce charges against first-time offenders more often. In addition to the arrest and the suspended license, a DUI conviction can prevent people from getting jobs. She says the punishment is too harsh for the crime.

And more prosecutors should consider reducing charges on offenders with prior DUI convictions, she said.

"Being thrown away and locked in prison for a year or two years, it is unlikely that you are going to break them of those bad habits," she said. "Sometimes there are lost causes. That's a call a prosecutor has to make, and that's a hard call."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or at tjett@timesfreepress.com

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