Davidson County's court changes help fast track DUIs - WKRN News 2

Davidson County's court changes help fast track DUIs

Posted: Updated: Dec 13, 2012 05:30 PM

Davidson County's Criminal Judges cleared their dockets for the first two weeks this month to clear pending DUI cases before the end of the year.

The annual effort helps keep DUI cases moving through the courts in an efficient way, thereby reducing the amount of time accused DUI offenders are able to be out on the roads before their trial.

"The sooner that you can push a case to trial or settlement and sanctions are imposed, I think the more effect it has on the person who has been charged with the crime," Presiding Judge Mark Fishburn said. "If you get through the system quicker and address the issues they have it tends to reduce the likelihood they will re-offend."

In 2008, Mayor Karl Dean called on the Davidson County District Attorney's Office and the criminal court judges to elevate a backlog in DUI cases.

According to Judge Fishburn, there were between 600 to 700 pending DUI cases with 15 to 20% of them being older than three years.

It made prosecuting DUI cases a lengthy process.

"What used to happen is I would go to court with six to eight cases and there were other trials set with rape, robbery or murder and we would not get to try our cases," Assistant District Attorney Kyle Anderson said. "They would bounce from court date to court date."

Anderson heads up the Davidson County District Attorney General's Vehicular Crimes unit. It's a specialized division of prosecutors who handle DUI cases and other vehicular times.

The division is funded in part by the Governor's Highway Safety Office.

"There is a good portion of people who just continue drinking and driving," Anderson said. "The last thing I want to see is while one DUI case is pending they get another DUI case and I am hoping that next DUI case isn't one were they hurt or kill somebody."

In response to the mayor's request to alleviate the backlog, Judge Fishburn started devoting his entire Friday docket to handling DUI cases.

The majority of the cases are handled with a plea, but if the defendant wants to go to trial the case is heard.

As a result, the number of pending cases has dropped to around 450 and there are none that have been pending longer than three years.

The average time from arrest to trial is 15 months.

The next challenge is stopping people who have already been convicted of multiple DUIs from re-offending.

"We approach that in my office by trying to mandate treatment, by using alcohol monitoring devices you wear on your ankle and by long terms of incarceration when necessary," Anderson said. "There are some people where that behavior won't change and you can't lock them up forever that is the quandary we are all in."

Judge Fishburn said changing how the court sentences offenders may also be effective.

"I do not think revoking their driver license and putting them in jail has been determined to be an effective deterrent," he said. "I think we need to be looking at things like SCRAM and interlock units that will tell you if they are drinking."

SCRAM, refers to a Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitoring device that a defendant would wear. It alerts the court and probation officials if the person drinks alcohol.

Interlock units prevent a person from starting their car unless they blow into an attached breathalyzer. If they are drunk the car will not start.

Judge Fishburn said traditional punishments of revoking licenses and incarceration can sometimes make maters worse.

"You mess up there finances that puts obvious stress on the family and their behavior tells them turn to the booze," he said. "I am not sure we don't create a bigger problem with the way we address something as we do on DUI laws."

Governor Bill Haslam is expected to submit an updated set of DUI laws to the Tennessee General Assembly when it returns to session.

The revisions do not make substantive changes to DUI law, but they are meant to be more easily interpreted by judges and lawyers.

Davidson County Court officials may increase the annual DUI catch up sessions from just two weeks in December to another session in the summer.

The long term goal could be to make the event quarterly.

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