Wednesday, December 11, 2013
Conviction rates for charges of operating under the influence vary widely from county to county in Maine, with the 10-year average ranging from a low of 37 percent in York County to a high of 83 percent in Hancock and Penobscot counties, according to an analysis by The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram.
Scarborough police Sgt. Tom Chard conducts a sobriety test Thursday after stopping a motorist during an operating-under-the-influence detail on Route 1. The driver passed the test. Average conviction rates on OUI charges range from 37 percent in York County to 83 percent in Hancock and Penobscot counties.
Derek Davis/Staff Photographer
The contrast is even starker in individual years. Ninety-four percent of OUI charges resolved in Hancock County in 2010 were convictions, compared with 32 percent in York County that same year.
The newspapers analyzed 10 years of data provided by the state Administrative Office of the Courts. The analysis compared the number of dispositions -- that is, charges that were resolved through conviction, acquittal, dismissal or other means -- to the number of convictions by year and over the period of 2002 to 2011.
It was not clear whether any organization tracks national conviction rates for impaired driving, so it's difficult to assess how Maine stacks up against other states.
Prosecutors, defense attorneys and law enforcement officers cite district attorneys' policies, case volumes and the resources of the judiciary in a particular location as some of the reasons behind the wide discrepancies.
Some district attorneys have a policy against pleading down OUI offenses to driving to endanger -- a practice that is routine in other counties.
R. Christopher Almy, the district attorney of Penobscot and Piscataquis counties, said his office's policy against reducing an OUI to driving to endanger lets police officers know that the prosecutor will stand behind them and also lets people know that there is no special treatment.
"If you start dropping these to driving to endanger, the question is, 'Who gets the break and who doesn't get the break?' " he said. "It may appear that people with high-priced lawyers get a break or people with important jobs get a break or there's some special reason. We just flat-out say no."
In Cumberland County, which had a 10-year conviction rate of 47 percent, District Attorney Stephanie Anderson has a policy that defendants are offered the chance to plead guilty to driving to endanger when it's a first offense and the breath test indicates a .08 or .09 blood alcohol content. She said that because of the breath test's margin of error in measuring blood alcohol content, it may not be possible to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that someone is over the legal limit of .08.
With about 12,000 cases of all types coming through her office annually, Anderson said she values tough screening of cases and has a goal of getting rid of half the cases at the arraignment stage.
Anderson said that in an underresourced system -- her next trial list has 78 cases, but she says there's time to try only about six -- she has to balance OUIs with other crimes such as armed robbery and gross sexual assault.
"I think it's better to get something rather than nothing at all," she said.
Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce said drop-downs of OUIs reflect the reality of limited court resources.
"I think it's a realistic approach. I don't know if it's an OK approach. It is what it is," he said.
York County District Attorney Kathryn Slattery said she does not have a set policy about dropping down an OUI charge. Prosecutors consider each case on an individual basis and may weigh factors including the defendant's attitude, the details of the incident and whether there's a substance abuse issue that can be addressed, she said.
"I think that as a general philosophy, I and all the people who work here do listen to circumstances particular to a defendant. There are some times it doesn't matter, and there are other times when it does," Slattery said.
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