Juneau attorneys, judge say DWI changes are not well known

Posted: Thursday, July 11, 2002

JUNEAU (AP) -- Tough new laws aimed at curbing drinking and driving are in effect but many in the legal community say the public remains unaware of the changes.

One change in statute that took effect last year removed a 10-year limit, or ''look back period,'' in determining minimum sentences based on previous convictions.

The law also increased, from five years to 10 years, the period in which previous drunken-driving convictions count toward felony charges for new drunken-driving offenses.

Defense attorney David Mallet said a recent client who was arrested several times in the late 1960s and early '70s for drunken driving thought his more recent drunken-driving conviction would count as his first in determining the sentence. It turned out to be his fifth.

Juneau District Court Judge Peter Froehlich said many who enter his court are unaware of the law.

''I haven't had anybody that's come to court knowing about it, and I've seen about a dozen people hit hard by it,'' Froehlich said. ''I think it's too bad that people are surprised at this kind of thing because I know it's the Legislature's intent to discourage people from driving under the influence before they do it.''

Defense attorney Philip Pallenberg said he has found that those convicted more than once likely never will be deterred by penalties.

''It's hard to say what kind of a deterrent laws like this ever have because drunken driving is such a non-thinking act,'' he said.

Although courts are now required to consider prior drunken-driving convictions, judges always have been able to consider them when sentencing repeat offenders, he said.

Pallenberg also questioned the deterrent effect a conviction would have if it happened 20 or 30 years ago.

''But I can't say I have a big objection to any of this stuff,'' he said, considering the dangers posed by driving drunk.

Mallet said no amount of education on the new laws will work because the laws themselves are fundamentally flawed.

''It has no deterrent effect whatsoever,'' Mallet said.

Mallet, who has practiced law for 24 years and who defended about 100 drunken-driving cases last year, said his clients are deterred by jail time, not steep fines. New laws dramatically increase fines for drunken driving.

''I think the Legislature has responded very inappropriately in revising the laws in ways that aren't going to do any good,'' he said. ''It's just another way for the state to make more money.''

He said removing the fines and putting drunken drivers behind bars for 30 days would have a real deterrent effect.

''I explain (to defendants) that (jail time) is probably the least of their worries,'' he said. ''License loss, fines and insurance costs are their real worries.''

He said the more fines and alcohol treatment requirements drunken drivers are expected to meet, the more likely they are to break probation and end up back in court.

He said the alcohol-treatment programs are underfunded. Many of his clients have been unable to enroll in classes in time.

''(Lawmakers) are trying to do the right thing,'' Mallet said, ''but they're not accomplishing it.''

Juneau District Attorney Rick Svobodny said the costs and increased work load for state employees will make it difficult to enforce the new laws.

For convictions of felony drunken-driving or felony breath-test refusal, for instance, the state requires forfeiture of the vehicle. Svobodny said that poses logistical problems, since the Legislature did not provide money to impound the vehicles.

In some cases in which an automobile is seized, Svobodny said, there would be further court hearings if the vehicle was taken from a drunken driver who is not the car's owner.

He said the new drunken-driving laws would amount to a ''huge amount of extra work'' in manpower for the courts.

''Something is going to have to give,'' Svobodny said.

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