For this past Christmas and New Year’s period in Palm Beach County, drivers who became first-time DUI offenders may have been able to minimize the damage to their lives — while potentially making the roads safer for everyone else in the long run.
Prosecutors are promoting a new program that enables eligible defendants to avoid a criminal conviction, steep court fines, possible jail time and headaches like higher car insurance premiums and even being fired from their jobs.
The hitch is agreeing to expensive alcohol monitoring devices for three to six months, pleading guilty to a misdemeanor reckless driving charge instead of a DUI, paying lower than usual fines, and completing one year of probation.
Sound good? Apparently not to the majority of first-time DUI offenders who have had a chance to participate so far this year and declined.
Just 425 people have signed up since the initiative began June 1, says Chief Assistant State Attorney Adrienne Ellis. For most of 2013, the office handled about 2,500 DUI cases.
The goal is for at least 33 to 50 percent of first-time offenders in Palm Beach County to take advantage of the program. Another objective is reducing caseloads for prosecutors and easing crowded court dockets.
The Mothers Against Drunk Driving organization in Florida endorses the effort because of the required monitoring, and the aim of preventing repeat DUI offenses. Only Miami-Dade, Orange and Alachua counties offer similar programs.
Ellis says one reason for the limited participation in Palm Beach County is speculation that criminal defense attorneys are choosing not to mention it to their clients. Attorneys could collect more fees by taking cases to trials.
Yet other defendants simply may be inclined to plead not guilty and take their chances in court, Ellis said.
Defense attorney Jack Fleischman says it clearly “is not for everyone” and he’s only had a few clients take part.
Some have a good case to be exonerated. Others are willing to take the risk of fighting the charge and possibly losing.
And, Fleischman says he’ll only recommend it to folks who are disciplined enough for the program’s strict rules: A participant flagged by an alcohol monitor will get a mandatory 90-day jail sentence.
“If you violate you can get more jail time with this than if you went to trial and lost,” Fleischman said. Ellis says just one participant has violated the terms.
A first-time DUI conviction includes fines ranging from $500 to $1,000 – or $1,000 to $2,000 for higher levels of impairment, or if a minor was in the car. There’s also: revocation of the driver’s license for a minimum of six months; impoundment of the car for 10 days; 50 hours of community service, up to one year of probation, possible jail time of six to nine months, and attendance at DUI school.
The diversion program could be viewed as an easier route because there is no loss of a driver’s license, no points on the license, and no conviction.
But participants must pay a minimum $250 fine, and choose one of three monitoring devices to use for at least three months. The ignition interlock — which prevents the car from starting if the driver is intoxicated — costs $87 for installation plus $76 per month; a SCRAM (Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitor) costs $100 to install and $11 per day payments; and a Visual Alcohol breath test monitor costs $50 to start plus $6 per day.
And participants still must complete community service, DUI school and lose their car for 10 days.
“This is a way for someone to come in and take responsibility early on, and ultimately not have that DUI conviction on their record,” Ellis said. “I think as time goes on we will get more participants.”