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RI ACLU Report Questions Calls for Punitive Drunk Driving Legislation

Posted: January 09, 2006|

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The Rhode Island ACLU today released a 35-page report that challenges recent highly-publicized claims about Rhode Island’s high alcohol fatality accident rate and the accompanying push for punitive drunk driving legislation at the State House this year. The report was released at a news conference today at which the ACLU was joined by the Drug and Alcohol Treatment Association of Rhode Island (DATA) in echoing the report’s findings and calling for an emphasis on treatment and other non-punitive measures to address the problem.

Based largely on national reports describing Rhode Island as having the worst ranking in the country when it comes to drunk-driving alcohol fatalities, there have been many calls for swift legislative action this year to address the state’s DUI problem. They include bills that would criminalize sanctions for breathalyzer refusals and allow police to obtain warrants to forcibly extract bodily fluids from suspected drivers for chemical testing, and efforts to have the R.I. Supreme Court reconsider a court ruling banning the use of drunk driving roadblocks – all proposals with potentially significant ramifications for civil liberties.

Among the findings presented in the ACLU’s report were the following:

  • The particular statistic used to rate Rhode Island as the worst in terms of drunk driving fatalities is a very misleading one. In fact, for over twenty years, the state’s alcohol fatality rate has been routinely lower than the national average.
  • In addition, Rhode Island’s overall fatality rate is much lower than the national average, and has been so for more than two decades. It is only because this rate is so low that the state’s alcohol fatality percentage appears so high.
  • Contrary to popular belief, a driver cannot avoid a DUI arrest (or conviction) by refusing to take a breathalyzer test. In fact, the test isn’t offered until after the DUI arrest has already taken place. Thus, police who drop criminal DUI charges against drivers who have refused a breathalyzer test do so by choice, not because of prohibitions in the law.
  • One of the biggest problems in terms of DUI enforcement does not appear to be the absence of strict laws, but instead a failure by some police departments to make drunk driving a priority. In that regard, DUI arrest rates in Rhode Island have been close to the lowest in the nation for more than a decade.
  • Rhode Island’s breathalyzer refusal penalties are typical of, or higher than, those in most other states. At the same time, the state’s DUI penalties are also generally higher than those in most other states.
  • Few states in the country treat breathalyzer refusal as a criminal offense. Rhode Island’s civil penalties for refusal are not a “loophole” unique to the state.

The report concludes by noting that strategies to reduce drunk driving in the state need not sacrifice civil liberties in the process. It emphasizes non-punitive approaches to the drunk driving problem, including increased availability and funding of treatment programs, a suggestion that has virtually gone unspoken during the months of debate on the issue.

RI ACLU executive director Steven Brown called the report “an attempt to correct many misconceptions about the drunk driving ‘crisis’ in Rhode Island, brought about by a misunderstanding of some of the laws and police practices at issue, and by the unintentionally misleading use of some statistics regarding drunk driving in the state. Although any drunk driving fatality is one too many, efforts to eradicate this problem should not be premised on misleading statistics or ungrounded expectations about the utility of punitive laws.

“Our goal in issuing this report is not to suggest that state officials should become complacent about the problem of drunk driving. But our research does call into question many of the arguments being used to demand prompt and harsh legislative responses to the issue, as there are serious doubts about both their efficacy and need. We offer this analysis in the most positive sense – to promote a more constructive, knowledgeable and factually accurate debate on this important social issue.”

Supporting the conclusions of the RI ACLU’s report, DATA’s executive director Neil A. Corkery said that “research demonstrates that a far more effective method of dealing with this complex issue is to provide much needed treatment strategies that have proved successful in addressing the real issue underlying this public health scourge: alcoholism and drug addiction.” He noted that his organization and its substance abuse treatment and prevention service providers have supported measures to remove impaired drivers from the road, including support of .08 legislation, but cautioned against the punitive proposals examined in the report.

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