Let’s Save Lives; Give Our DUI Prosecutors the Support They Need and Deserve
By: Joanne Thomka and Erin Inman with the National District Attorneys Association
DUI cases are among the most complex to come across a prosecutor’s desk. In the trial of these cases, a prosecutor may need to present all sorts of evidence: scientific evidence, lay person testimony, law enforcement testimony, and in some cases expert witness testimony. Thus, prosecutors must also know the mechanics of introducing everything in court. This means the DUI prosecutor must stay up to date on local rules of court, changes in case law, and rules of evidence, all of which can change periodically. DUI cases can also be challenging, because of jurors’ perceptions. Jurors are often sympathetic to the defendant, or they consider the punishments for this type of offense to be too strict. Sometimes they, or a family member, have driven impaired, and/or they have faced jail time or licenses sanctions upon conviction. Prosecutors must, therefore, be prepared to not only prove the defendant was impaired while driving but must also persuade jurors that the offense is important to enforce.
DUI cases are further complicated, because it is one of the few areas of criminal law where defense attorneys specialize. This means prosecutors must deal with well trained, fully staffed, and well-paid defense attorneys in DUI cases. Also, the defendants in DUI cases come from all walk of life, including persons with money to spend on defending them. Thus, a DUI can involve multiple suppression motions and expert witness challenges. In short, a defense attorney who specializes in DUI can add to the complexity of the case presentation.
On the flip side, DUI prosecutors are often the least experienced attorneys in their offices. It is a common practice for prosecutors’ offices to assign traffic and DUI cases to the newest prosecutors. A natural consequence is that the cases are often handled by the least experienced, least trained, and least paid prosecutors. Also, because the cases are often not prioritized within the prosecutors’ offices, DUI prosecutors are discouraged from spending much time working on the cases. High caseloads, too little time, and minimal support leads to low prosecutor morale and high job turnover. In other words, typical practices in prosecutors’ offices perpetuates a culture of non-prioritization of DUI cases.
Reforms would be helpful to alleviate prosecutors’ stress and provide continuity in DUI prosecution. Offices can prioritize DUI prosecution by allowing attorneys and staff time and resources for trainings. Facilitating these trainings means introducing prosecutors to their Traffic Safety Resource Prosecutors, toxicologists, law enforcement officers, and local DUI advocates; These individuals are the most familiar with the nuances and challenges of DUI cases. They are also passionate about their work and inspire prosecutors and staff to do their best- even in the most trying of times. Also, mentorships and networking with community stakeholders builds public support for the cause. Offices can also provide support for impaired driving prosecution through recognition of prosecutors and support staff who dedicate their time to saving lives on our roads. Cultivating interest in these cases will result in employee retention and greater expertise in the office. Recognizing the efforts and successes of individuals in the office is sometimes all it takes to retain that expertise. With a little reform, we can overcome challenges and create a motivated and polished prosecution teams. This will lead to effective DUI prosecution, and ultimately it will save lives.
More information about Prosecutorial Reform to help stop impaired driving can be found at Responsibility.org.