Was justice served?

October 06, 1992

A speeding car swerves around a corner on a suburban road, smashes into a youth helping a stranded motorist, pins him to a tree, pauses as the youth and his companions scream at the driver, then flees in the darkness. A week later the driver, a Phoenix dentist, is arrested after Baltimore County police discover his Mercedes Benz being repaired in a garage. He is NTC convicted of speeding and hit-and-run driving, which carries a maximum jail term of a year. There is no evidence of drunk driving; the driver fled without undergoing a sobriety test. But his attorney conceded that the driver had consumed four hard drinks and some wine with dinner. He has had 10 moving violations in the past 17 years. His sentence: a suspended jail term, a fine and 1,000 hours of community service.

Was justice done? What is justice in a case like this? Judges, lawyers, sobriety activists and ordinary citizens disagree. For one thing, justice depends on where the offense occurred. In Baltimore and Harford counties, a little more than half of convicted drunk drivers are given probation before judgment in District Court. But in Anne Arundel County, barely one in five get PBJ, as it is known. State-wide, about a third of drunk drivers are granted probation, which means the conviction is wiped out if they maintain good behavior for a prescribed period and, frequently, get treatment.

Judges who grant probation in such cases argue that requiring a driver to undergo treatment or attend Alcoholics Anonymous sessions makes more sense than putting a productive citizen in jail, at least for a first offense. If the driver lapses again during the probation period, he can still be jailed. Judges who are frustrated at their inability to reform other kinds of miscreants are attracted by the prospect of salvaging someone. How well it works is not clear: There do not seem to be reliable statistics on the number of repeat drunk drivers.

Sobriety advocates reject this approach. They argue the arrested driver is not a first offender -- it's just the first time he was caught. According to some research, drunk drivers have done it dozens, even hundreds of times, before their initial arrests.

Probation -- with or without mandatory AA -- is just beating the system to many such offenders. Sentences are supposed to deter -- and not only the offender. A drunk driver walking away from a conviction without jail time sends a message to other drinking drivers: You've got a free one coming. If you happen to maim someone in the process, tough luck for him or her.

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