'No Refusal' on New Year's Eve: Drunk Driving Policy May Save Lives But Stirs Controversy

Plan may save lives but stirs controversy.

December 31, 2010, 1:27 PM

Dec. 31, 2010— -- If history holds up, this New Year's Eve will prove to have been a deadly night on America's roads. Deaths typically shoot up about 150 percent during the holiday, as intoxicated revelers get behind the wheel.

To combat drunk driving this year, police, prosecutors, and judges in several states are turning to an aggressive and controversial tactic -- the "No Refusal" strategy. Officials in at least seven states, including Florida, Louisiana, Texas, Illinois, Arizona, Utah and Idaho, have made this a "no refusal" weekend.

The tactic is designed to close a loophole that police see all too often, when a drunk driving suspect says no to a breathalyzer test, hoping to beat any charges in court. Instead this weekend, judges in the no-refusal states will be right there on standby, ready to issue warrants so police can take a blood sample if a suspect declines a breathalyzer test. The results from the blood test provide evidence for prosecutors.

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"The no refusal program is a unique program that brings together judges, police officers, nurses and prosecutors in one centralized facility that takes away the ability of impaired drivers to prevent the police from getting evidence," said Warren Diepraam., the chief vehicular crimes prosecutor at the District Attorney's office in Montgomery County, Texas.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, an average of 22.4 percent of drunk driving suspects refuse breathalyzer tests. NHTSA reports that 10,839 people were killed in alcohol-related crashes in 2009, a figure that accounts for nearly a third of all traffic fatalities in the U.S.

The federal government and Mothers Against Drunk Driving have firmly supported the "no refusal" strategy as a way to curtail deaths. NHTSA says the "no refusal" program results in more guilty pleas and fewer trials.

In Houston, where the program has been in place for several years, DUI deaths are down about 20 percent in 2009 alone and conviction rates are up.

Bexar County, Texas, which includes San Antonio, has had such success with the program that the government reportedly plans to use the "no refusal" plan on every weekend of the new year, not just on holidays.

"The program is very effective because it speeds up the DWI process," Diepraam said. "It's kind of like a one-stop shop for DWI cops ... Instead of it taking two to three hours to get a sample in a DWI case, it takes as little as 15 minutes."

Critics of "No Refusal" Policy Question Legitimacy of Warrants

Still, there are critics of the "no refusal" plan, including criminal defense attorneys and the ACLU.

"There are two problems with this. One is the potential invalidity of the search warrants," said Marjorie Esman, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana. "If they're being issued assembly-line style, there may not be the kind of individualized investigation in each particular case that's necessary for a valid search warrant."

"The other concern is the medical privacy issue," Esman said. "We don't know what they're doing with the blood samples -- whether they're data banking it, what kind of information they're going to glean from it."

But law enforcers say that little else has worked to keep drunk drivers off roads, and they hope that this tough tactic can save lives.

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