Sun, Jan. 19

Driving under the influence in Arizona<br><i>What cost to the taxpayers?</i>

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According to Chief Dep. County Atty. Dennis McGrane, there is no blame, it's Arizona law.

"The Yavapai County prosecutors office has nothing to do with whose license is revoked or suspended," McGrane said. "This is the way our system works."

McGrane explains that the legislative branch of government writes laws that are then charged to the executive branch, where the state Motor Vehicle Division resides, that sets the penalties for driving while impaired, and the judicial branch, where judges and lawyers reside, recommends guilt or innocence of an offender.

"It’s up to the Motor Vehicle Division who is able to drive and who will have their license suspended," he added.

He said that these laws work and are indeed a deterrent for driving while impaired. But is it enough?

In Robbins’ case, a grand jury found enough evidence to upgrade charges from manslaughter to second degree murder.

According to McGrane, penalties depend on grand jury findings and the county attorney’s office in cases similar to Robbins, and there are many variables involved.

Though he would not comment on the Robbins case, he did say, "A grand jury determined a change in penalty. This is a more severe penalty and there was enough evidence to support these charges."

When asked about a change of jurisdiction for a high profile case like Robbins’, he said that a change of venue is rare as long as prosecutors and the defense believes a fair trial can ensue.

McGrane avidly avoided discussing Robbins’ case, but did speak about the epidemic of driving while impaired.

According to McGrane, the county attorney’s office handles all felony cases in the county and misdemeanor cases in the unincorporated areas of Yavapai County.

He discussed the plea bargain process and that it is often a way to grease the slow turning wheels of the judicial process.

He said that trials take time and resources, often taking one or more police officers off of the street and into the courtroom for testimony, but the plea bargain is a necessary evil in the legal system, despite reducing sentences for offenders.

He said that most judges in impaired driver cases are satisfied with the minimum penalties, whether they are sever enough or not, and reiterated, "These laws do act as a deterrent for impaired driving," he said. "Could they be more severe? Maybe. But if a habitual substance abuser is determined to drive, they will -- license or not."

He added that his office is allowed to strike a hard blow, but not a foul one, meaning that within parameters established at the legislative level, a penalty may be severe within the law and the laws are enacted by a government that is voted on by the public.

According to McGrane, there is a dramatic increase in what he called "drugged drivers," motorists impaired by substances other than alcohol and that methamphetamine is the current epidemic.

With a staff of some 80 and a $4 million budget, the Yavapai County Attorney’s Office is assailed with 2,500 felonies annually and some 10,000 misdemeanors.

But McGrane is confident that county prosecutors are effective in keeping down the rate of impaired drivers.

Still, the figures are alarming and so are the costs of impaired drivers on Arizona highways.

According to the Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Arizona law enforcement agencies reported in 1999, that 7,756 crashes involving an impaired driver and an estimated total of 42,700 crashes in Arizona involved alcohol which killed 406 and injured an estimated 17,300 people.

Alcohol-related crashes in Arizona cost the public an estimated $3 billion recently, including $1 billion in monetary costs and almost $1.5 billion in quality of life losses.

People other than the impaired driver paid $1.6 billion of the alcohol-related crash bill and the average alcohol-related fatality in Arizona costs $3.3 million, approximately $1 million in monetary costs, and the estimated cost per injured survivor of an alcohol-related crash averaged $100,000.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that alcohol-related crashes accounted for an estimated 17 percent of Arizona's auto insurance payments and by reducing alcohol-related crashes by 10 percent would save $50 million in claims payments and loss adjustment expenses.

NHTSA estimated that nationally, highway crashes cost society $230 billion annually, about $820 per person.

The NHTSA reported further, that some 60 percent of intoxicated patrons drive after consuming alcohol in bars, clubs or restaurants and that a statewide, mandatory, face-to-face server training program has the potential to reduce nighttime DUI injury crashes by 17 percent and saves about $200 in crash costs per licensed driver.

NHTSA reports further, that 18 million Americans meet the diagnostic criteria for alcohol abuse or alcoholism and fatally injured drivers with BAC levels of 0.08 percent were 9 times as likely to have a prior conviction for driving while intoxicated compared to fatally injured sober drivers and that one-third of all drivers arrested or convicted of driving while impaired are repeat offenders.

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