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Friday, November 28, 2008

State Information Gaps Let Drunken Drivers Get Away Easy

New Technology to Link States' Databases

Robert Hood, 44, was recently arrested for fourth DUI arrest in three states in less than two weeks…. yet posted a $200 bond and walked out of a Nebraska without facing a judge. Under Nebraska law the Caldwell, Texas resident was charged as a first-time offender and allowed to pay 10 percent of the $2,000 bond because officials were unaware of the other pending dues.

The FBI-run national computer system that states use shows only those people who have been fingerprinted at the time of arrest. Some suspects' arrests, such as Hood, can go undetected if the information is delayed getting into the system or they are not fingerprinted.

The system did not show Hood's recent DUI arrest in Wyoming, and two more in South Dakota. Because of this lack of information, repeat DUI offenders across the country are allowed to easily post low bonds and go on their way.

Court officials are becoming increasingly alarmed at this egregious error.

"If judges are made aware of other pending charges, it could justify a higher bond to (ensure) the person appears in court," said Sarpy County Judge Todd Hutton, who sits on the bench in suburban Omaha. "The judges make their decisions based on the information they are provided. They can't act on information that is not brought to their attention."

Hutton said a higher bond could be justified if prosecutors know a defendant has other pending charges.

In Deadwood, S.D., one of the places Hood was arrested, a state attorney said the same problem exists in his state.

"The more (DUIs) you get the higher the bond," John Fitzgerald said. "When you see someone who repeats something so dangerous, the bond can get pretty high even if it's a misdemeanor." What's worse, officials in most states are often unaware of other pending charges against a defendant within their own borders.

According to Nebraska Deputy Otoe County Attorney Tim Noerrlinger, people charged with a first-offense DUI do not have to have a formal hearing, but can instead pay bond according to a schedule.

Although still in the pilot stage, the FBI is hoping a new national system will alert law enforcement officials when a defendant has multiple DUI offenses pending in other states.

Tom Bush, assistant director of the FBI's criminal justice information services, said the National Data Exchange or N-DEx, is designed to link local, state and federal records.

On July 4, Hood was arrested in Mitchell, S.D. when an officer found him passed out in his car. A test showed Hood tested 0.260 percent - over three times the legal limit. Davison County Circuit Court clerk said he was released on 10 percent of a $5,000 bail. Three days later, Hood's second DUI arrest occurred in Deadwood, S.D., a town in northwest South Dakota. Hood's blood-alcohol content was 0.184 percent, according to Chief Kelly Fuller of the Deadwood Police Department. Hood's arrest in Mitchell did not show up in state records at the time of arrest, so he was charged with a first-offense DUI and released on another $500 bond.

A Platte County circuit court official said that the very next day, Hood was arrested on suspicion of drunken driving in Platte County, Wyo., and charged with first-offense DUI. A test showed his blood-alcohol content was 0.160 percent. Hood was found guilty of a first offense DUI in Wyoming on July 10, and sentenced to six months unsupervised probation and a $580 fine.

On July 13, Hood was then arrested on suspicion of drunken driving at 8:30 a.m. in Otoe County, Neb., about 50 miles south of Omaha. According to court records, his blood-alcohol content was 0.081, just over the legal limit of 0.08. Otoe County Jail officials said he was released after posting $200 bond.

The executive director of the Nebraska chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Simara Reynolds, said Hood's case was disturbing.

"It is frightening to see someone charged so frequently in such a short period of time," she said. Authorities are now searching for Hood after he failed to appear to multiple court dates. Warrants have been issued for his arrest.

Laura Dean-Mooney, national president of MADD, said that offenders with multiple DUI arrests are more common than most people think. Dean-Mooney says changes are needed to the current "catch and release" program. She said over 2.8 million people on the road today have three or more DUI convictions.

Kevin Quinlan, chief of safety advocacy division at the National Transportation Safety Board in Washington D.C. said, "Hard-core drunk drivers are clearly more dangerous."

As defined by National Transportation Safety Board, hard-core drunken drivers are those with a prior drunken-driving arrest or conviction within the past 10 years, or offenders with a blood-alcohol content of 0.150 percent or greater.

N-DEx was designed to search, link, analyze, and share criminal justice information including arrest and incident reports, incarceration data, and probation data nationwide.

"Anything (agencies) put in it will be available nationally," he said, but the data gold mine will depend on how each jurisdiction or state collects the data and what they want to report.

N-DEx takes 360 data elements seen in incident reports today and puts them into a master form, said Kevin Reid, N-DEx program manager. Agencies can then search individual or multiple elements.

Participation by all states will be gradual, Bush said, with the goal of having the nationwide system in place by 2010.

Submitting and receiving information from N-DEx is voluntary, Bush continued, but the FBI is convinced that such voluntary programs will work, citing NCIC and a fingerprint database.
Bush said he believes agencies will start using N-DEx once they start to see the benefits.
Oregon State Police Maj. Chris Brown said that his state was one of the first states to test N-DEx.

"It works very well and is very robust," Brown said.

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