New program for first-time DWI offenders

July 30, 2009 5:01:52 PM PDT
Defense attorneys are up in arms over a new program in Harris County that will soon be offered to first time DWI offenders. It's a deal that could eventually lead to convictions being removed from their records. JoAnne Musick doesn't think the program is a good idea. She is president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association whose membership of 600 defense lawyers are united against the program and plan to advise their clients not to take the district attorney's deal.

"It offers the citizens a chance to exchange his constitutional rights in order to help the district attorney make their case," said Musick.

Right now, Harris County has about 10,000 DWI arrests each year. Sixty-five percent of those defendants opted for no probation or no treatment.

To reduce those numbers, the Harris County District Attorney's Office is beginning the DIVERT program, offered only to first-time DWI offenders.

''The first time offender DWI is a unique type of person, most of them between the ages of 17 and 25, with 23-year-olds being the largest group last year," said Roger Bridgwater, HCDA's Senior Administrator.

In the DIVERT program, the offender agrees to enter a DWI guilty plea, they agree to punishment if they violate the terms, waive their right to trial and their right to appeal. If there is a successful completion of the probation terms, the DWI case will be dismissed.

"The number one problem is the fact that there is a guilty plea provided up front in exchange for a known punishment, then you're put on probation. That's a deferred adjudication. That's what the legislature says is not possible for a DWI offense," said Musick.

The program, says the DA's office, is legal because it's not deferred adjudication, but a pretrial intervention designed to reduce the amount of drunk drivers.

"I've met with victims, I've met with representatives of MADD, representatives of other victims' groups and after the meeting, I've not had anybody in those groups that I have talked to that has not left agreeing that this is something of value," said Bridgwater.

The program is only for first-time offenders and those offenders have the right not to accept the deal. The program is expected to go into effect August 1.

Just this week we told you about a controversial new state law that's about to go into effect targeting drunk drivers.

Starting September 1, police officers will have the power to bypass a judge when deciding whether a blood test is necessary for a suspected drunk driver. That's only in certain cases, for instance if the suspected drunk driver is a repeat offender or has a child in the vehicle.

Currently a judge most issue a warrant before blood can be taken from a suspected drunk driver for testing.

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