Texas leads the nation in many things — including drunken-driving fatalities.
The Senate Committee on Criminal Justice met today to talk about ways to stop Texans from getting behind the wheel after imbibing. Judges, police and even a third-time DWI offender told lawmakers some Texas drunken driving laws could use some stiffening, while other measures take punishment too far.
Police told the committee that some hospitals are hampering their efforts to curb drunken driving with blood tests. In 2008, law enforcement in counties across Texas began implementing "no refusal" weekends. In a twist of constitutional logic, individuals suspected of DWI may refuse a breathalyzer as per their right to not self-incriminate — but not a blood test. But some hospitals not wanting to involve themselves in criminal investigations often charge fees of up to $400 for the blood test, or outright refuse to perform them.
During "no refusal" weekends, which typically occur during holidays and major sporting events, a mobile phlebotomist operating out of a van helps police officers perform blood tests. It’s helped them enforce DWI laws, police said, but it’s too costly to operate on a day-to-day basis.
But lawmakers on the committee said they want a more comprehensive approach to preventing and deterring DWI. And they questioned steep mandatory penalties for first-time offenders who have no criminal records.
The committee's chairman, state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, told the story of a college-aged constituent convicted of a DWI after he "drank too much champagne" at a New Year’s Eve party. The young man had learned his lesson, Whitmire said. And levying huge fines for first-timers could put them in an impossible bind. To get their driver’s licenses back, the offenders have to first pay off the fines. But without the ability to drive, getting to work to make money to pay the fines becomes a major challenge, Whitmire said.
While he’s worried that first-time offenders are getting hit too hard, Whitmire said penalties for repeat DWI offenders aren’t tough enough.
State District Judge Dib Waldrip, a former police officer and prosecutor in Comal County, encouraged lawmakers to treat repeat DWI offenses like mental health problems instead of criminal issues. In his court, Waldrip said he has good success with a program that seeks to "challenge" offenders to permanently change their behavior for the long term. Those who complete his years-long program, Waldrip said, are much less likely to land back in his court.
"The difference between the challenge court and normal probation is just remarkable," said Glenn Weinweber, a three-time DWI offender who has been in the Comal County program for two-and-a-half years. "It has certainly helped me."