NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – Oftentimes we see the immediate aftermath of drinking and driving, but what happens after police arrest someone?
In theory, it sounds simple. Someone commits a crime, the case goes to court, and if they did it, they’re found guilty and go to jail.
However, there’s an essential part of the system that is leaving Tennessee families wondering, “Why was that the outcome?”
“We have to prove a case under a very high burden in front of a judge. We do our level best to get there in every case, and I think we do a pretty good job, although like any organization we are certainly not perfect,” said Matthew Gilbert, who leads the Davidson County District Attorney’s Office Vehicular Crimes Team.
For 10 years, Gilbert has been with the District Attorney’s Office. He has seen it all, from minor crashes to the ones that claim the life of another.
News 2 has seen the aftermath of drunk driving taking its toll on families. Earlier this year, many of them directly impacted met with Gilbert in a late-night meeting. The focus was on how to better handle DUI cases in Davidson County, while many families questioned why court outcomes would end with a lesser charge or being pleaded out.
So, when the DA’s office was given a chance to obtain federal funding to create a specialized DUI unit, why did they turn it down?
The District Attorney’s Office said the money sounds easier than it looks.
“We looked carefully and decided instead of having one team that tries to handle the vast majority of those cases, we were much better off distributing them evenly throughout the office. So the way we look at it, we went from having a team that does most of the cases to every prosecutor having those types of cases on their docket,” explained Gilbert.
Right now, there are 11 General Session Divisions in Davidson County and six Criminal Court Divisions. The DA’s Office said if they had moved forward with a specialized unit, those chosen would essentially have to be in 17 different places at the same time.
“One of the ways we felt best to do it was to rely on having not specialized teams on the subject matter, but to have a specialized team, but several other court teams in six criminal divisions and general sessions divisions who are all working on those cases together,” explained Gilbert.
When News 2 asked why many cases are being pleaded out or given a lesser charge, however, Gilbert explained there are many contributing factors before they get to a final sentence.
There are three main obstacles they face in court.
The first is allowing the defendant to face their accuser. In these types of cases, oftentimes the DA’s office needs the arresting police officer to show up and give testimony in the case. However, this has proven difficult with understaffing and being assigned to pressing cases.
Secondly, prosecutors are pushing for treatment court. For those who commit their first DUI, it’s often considered a mistake. However, once a second DUI is charged, there are signs of a problem with alcohol, and there is a chance for rehabilitation.
Lastly, sometimes they simply don’t win. Even with all the evidence they can produce, a jury or judge could rule against the prosecutor’s office.
Meanwhile, the problem of repeat offenders has caught the attention of lawmakers this year.
Rep. William Lamberth (R-Portland) introduced House Bill 0144, which changes the number of days a person serves behind bars from 25 to 17 days after their second DUI.
However, how is less time solving the problem?
“At 17 days in a 45-day sentence for a DUI second, somebody can do 17 days in jail then 28 days in treatment. They are out in the community for 45 days and then can do follow up aftercare, either with electronic monitoring or outpatient treatment, and that sets them on a pathway for a lifetime of sobriety,” said Lamberth.
Another part of the bill focuses on third-time DUI offenders, which would require someone to wear an alcohol monitoring device.
“I’ve worked very closely with Mothers Against Drunk Driving and with victim advocates and survivors of DUI crashes to be able to craft these bills, but again we’re tough on offenders. We make sure they understand if you drive drunk in this state, you’re going to get caught; you’re going to go to jail; you’re going to be held accountable, but we also leave an avenue for you to get help and get treatment,” said Lamberth. “If they come back on that third offense DUI, we mandated in this bill that you have to have an electronic monitoring…you have to have an ankle bracelet. We’re going to make sure that you stop drinking, period, so that you’re not a danger to the public.”
This new bill took effect on July 1.