Distributed October 11, 2001
For Immediate Release
News Service Contact: Kate Bramson

Taubman Center for Public Policy

Study finds disparities across state in enforcing drunk driving laws

In Rhode Island, second-offense drunk drivers are accurately charged only 60 percent of the time, according to a study recently released by the Taubman Center for Public Policy at Brown University. Violators often receive lighter penalties than the law prescribes. The study recommends improvements to data collection and data access across jurisdictions.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Although Rhode Island law clearly outlines harsher penalties for repeat drunk-driving offenses, violators are often undercharged, according to a study recently released by the Taubman Center for Public Policy at Brown University. In Rhode Island, second-offense drunk drivers are accurately charged only 60 percent of the time. The study breaks down such incorrect charges by county and examines why such offenses are not properly charged.

Incorrectly charging someone for a first drunk-driving offense when he or she has actually had more than one offense results in more lenient sentences for multiple offenders, according to the study, prepared by students in a public policy class, “Criminal Justice System in Rhode Island.” The class was taught by Ross Cheit, associate professor of public policy, and Tracy Breton, a visiting professor of English and a reporter at the Providence Journal. The data also shows that not all mandatory sentences are issued. For example, the punishment of loss of license is not always enforced.

Among other penalties, a driving under the influence (DUI) conviction for a second offense within five years carries a mandatory jail time of 10 days to one year, an important distinction between the first and second offenses. Between 1995 and 1997, the years examined in this study, 221 defendants were charged with DUI for a second offense within five years. However, court records showed an additional 146 cases in which the defendant had a prior drinking conviction within five years and could have been charged with the more serious offense but was not.

Kent County leads the state with a 94.44-percent accuracy rate in charging second offenses. Washington County trails with a 37.21-percent accuracy rate. Newport County was accurate 68.33 percent of the time, the state police 58.33 percent, Providence County 53.03 percent, and Bristol County 44.44 percent. In instances where a defendant was incorrectly charged for a first offense rather than a second, only 2 percent of those cases statewide took place in Kent County, while 43 percent of them occurred in Providence County. Bristol County accounted for 7 percent of the incorrect charges, Newport County for 13 percent, the state police for 17 percent and Washington County for 18 percent.

The study found that the underlying problem with undercharging defendants is the investigation by arresting police departments into defendants’ prior records. Researchers found a lack of communication between departments. Also, since there is no real-time computer database available to all the different jurisdictions, sharing files depends on departmental requests for paper records rather than simply searching a database. However, the problem may be deeper than interdepartmental data sharing. The study found that 88 of the 146 cases in which the defendant was undercharged occurred in the same district as the prior conviction. In addition, 46 of the undercharged cases occurred in the same police department as the first offense.

The study does point out that undercharging is sometimes discovered and corrected. There were 40 cases between 1995 and 1997 where the defendant seems to have pleaded to a higher charge than the one with which he or she was initially charged. These cases represent situations where the defendants’ prior convictions were discovered and compensated for in sentencing.

The study recommends four changes to the system to improve prosecution of drunk driving:

  • A better data framework. Although a statewide database exists, it should be expanded.

  • More efficient data entry.

  • Improved access to data so that officers making a drunk-driving arrest may check for a prior conviction.

  • Improved communication lines within jurisdictions to ensure that the first three suggestions are effective.

During the three-year period examined in the study, there were 6,030 arrests under the state’s drunk-driving statutes. The vast majority – 5,933 – were single-car arrests and did not involve a victim in addition to the drunk driver, according to a database provided by the Rhode Island Superior Court.

The students involved in the study were David Grunwald and Joe McDonald, who both graduated in 2001, and Jessica Galante, a junior at Brown currently studying abroad.

For more information, the full report is available at the Taubman Center Web site.