A new legislative proposal would allow first-time drunken drivers in Texas to be acquitted if they complete supervision and treatment, a move supporters say would reduce court backlogs and shift the judicial system's focus to punishing repeat DWI offenders.
Rep. Todd Smith, R-Euless, filed the proposal that would allow for deferred adjudication for first-time DWI offenders. Repetition of the offense would become grounds to increase future punishments.
The bill, which has supporters including Mothers Against Drunk Driving, prosecutors and defense attorneys, would be a change from the state's stance that all drunken drivers should face fines and jail. In the mid-1980s, deferred adjudication for such offenses was abolished in the state. Opponents at the time, including MADD, had argued that the form of probation was being accepted for repeat offenders.
"It's a needed change," said Richard Alpert, a Tarrant County prosecutor. "It's not like they are getting a free DWI, but a type of probation that would not technically be a conviction. If they don't reoffend, they can say they have not been convicted. But if they do reoffend, it can be used to enhance their punishment."
Supporters say that by routing cases out of courtrooms, the plan could ease court backlogs. Also, they say, it could improve efforts to track and punish repeat DWI offenders and remove the threat of jail that makes some first-timers refuse guilty pleas.
"Generally we do not support deferred adjudication bills, but we are going to support this one," Bill Lewis, public policy liaison for the Irving-based nonprofit group MADD, told the Austin American-Statesman. "Right now, we are hearing that many cases are not getting prosecuted for DWI but for a bogus charge. We hope the practice of reducing charges will be reduced if this bill does indeed pass."
Supporters of the bill also say it could give prosecutors a new negotiating tool.
Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley said that the plan would still require supervision of the defendant and could enforce fines and allow a judge to impose jail time as a condition of probation.
"This would be a first step to putting some sanity in that system as long as people make sure to retain it only for the true first-time offender," Bradley said.
While the proposal has been in front of the Legislature before, Alpert said there is plenty of support this time.
"I think there is some momentum for this," Alpert said. "It would give people who want to take responsibility an incentive to plead guilty, as opposed to setting these cases for trial. We have too many cases on the docket."