Drunken-driving cases plummet, but why? Some cite fewer police resources, not more sober drivers

February 19, 1993|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,Administrative Office of Maryland CourtsStaff Writer

It seems like good news: The number of drunken driving cases brought into Maryland's district court system has plunged. But some caution that drivers may not be as sober as the figures suggest.

The number of cases filed during the fiscal year ending June 30, 1992, dropped 7.3 percent, according to the recently released Annual Report of the Maryland Judiciary.

An advocacy group, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) in Maryland, questions whether police are becoming lax in their enforcement of DWI laws. But the state police say Marylanders are simply taking to heart the repeated warnings against driving while intoxicated.

"People are starting to heed the message about drunk driving and choosing not to drink and drive. It's becoming socially unacceptable," said 1st Sgt. Gregory M. Shipley, a state police spokesman.

"I'd like to believe that it's true. It would mean that we've done a pretty good job," said Brenda S. Barnes, state executive director of MADD. "[But] in society, there is not that much of an indication that there are fewer drunk drivers out there."

From a national perspective, alcohol-related deaths on the highways show a steady decline. Federal transportation officials say that has been a major factor in a sharp drop in traffic fatalities in recent years.

And in Maryland district courts, the number of DWI cases has fallen for the past three years. The 36,823 cases filed in the fiscal year that ended in June 1992 compare with 44,666 cases filed in the fiscal year that ended in June 1989 -- a 17.6 percent drop.

The plunge is continuing, according to figures for the first half of fiscal 1993, which began July 1, 1992. Only 16,346 DWI cases were filed in district courts through December. If that pace holds up, the volume of DWI cases for fiscal 1993 could drop 11.2 percent compared with that of the previous year.

Maryland District Chief Judge Robert F. Sweeney said he was troubled about the declining number of DWI cases being brought to court.

"Something extraordinary is happening. What it is, I don't know," Judge Sweeney said.

The judge said the messages against drunken driving may be a factor, but that he is concerned that police are not enforcing DWI laws as vigilantly as in the past. He said police departments may be shifting some of their resources to other crimes.

"Somewhere in between is the truth," Judge Sweeney said. "It's not my job to police the highways of the state, but I am concerned about the numbers because I have to assess the courts' needs for judicial manpower. I have a secondary interest as a father and grandfather, and am concerned if the motor vehicle laws of this state aren't being enforced."

In Maryland, a blood alcohol level of .10 is considered evidence of intoxication. To catch drunks, state police patrol interstate highways and some of the other major roadways. County and municipal police usually take the lead in patrolling state and local roads.

Cases across state

The number of DWI cases varied widely among the state's jurisdictions. Anne Arundel County, whose courts have had the highest number of DWI cases in four of the last five years, led the state with 7,610 cases during the last fiscal year.

DWI cases increased by 1,441, or 23 percent, in Anne Arundel. In comparison, they decreased by 1,590, or 24.2 percent, in Montgomery County, which had 4,968 cases.

In Anne Arundel, DWI enforcement is a high priority, and that is no longer the case in Montgomery, officials in the two jurisdictions say.

"The administration of the police department here takes drunk driving very seriously and makes it a top priority," said Sgt. Henry A. McClung of the Anne Arundel police. "Personally, I can't think of anything on the highway that is more dangerous than a drunk driver."

Sergeant McClung said his department targets drunken drivers through two special programs. One effort uses a helicopter and two cruisers to look out for drunken drivers in areas where a high number of alcohol-related deaths or DWI arrests occur. The other focuses on under-age drinkers during prom and graduation season. He said county police can afford to place a great deal of emphasis on DWI violations.

"Anne Arundel is very fortunate because we don't have the amount of violent crime that you have in the two big city areas, although we're right smack in the middle," he said.

In Montgomery, Officer Kenneth R. Roynestad agreed with Judge Sweeney's observation, saying police are facing a rise in other crimes and cannot focus on DWI violations any longer.

DWI arrests in Montgomery grew more than seven-fold during the 1980s, but then began to plunge in the 1990s.

"The decline in 1991 and 1992 showed not a flagging of interest in DWI arrests but a flagging of our ability to maintain them," said Officer Roynestad, who coordinates the department's chemical and alcohol test unit. "We may not have the luxury of delegating 15 officers to do nothing but DWI on weekends any longer."

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