Declining conviction rates raise questions about DWI enforcement

Photo by Kris Klarer / NM News Port

People worrying about the high drunk driving arrest rates in New Mexico are sounding the alarm over a steep drop in convictions.

The crime of Driving While Intoxicated (DWI) is a major public concern in New Mexico and has spurred legislation, media outreach and marketing campaigns addressing the issue.

But lately DWI arrest rates — and especially conviction rates — have been dropping, which raises questions about the effectiveness of New Mexico’s DWI policies.

According to data from the New Mexico DWI Resource Center, DWI conviction rate fell significantly from around 60 percent in 2013 to about 45 percent in 2014, a drop of nearly 15 percentage points.

In 1985, the data shows the total number of DWI arrests in New Mexico was about 21,000 with a conviction rate of around 75 percent, that is nearly 16,000 convictions for around 21,000 arrests. From 1985 to 2012, arrest numbers decreased and the conviction rate for DWIs never fell below 64 percent. After 2012, conviction rates have been drastically declining.

In Bernalillo County alone, conviction rate differences are more drastic when the DWI rate fell by 20 percentage points between 2013 and 2014; 49 percent to 28 percent. Nearly two-thirds of 2014 Bernalillo County DWI cases resulted in conviction.

According to the 2013 DWI resource center report, DWI reduction programs contribute to the decrease in arrest and crash rates but points out New Mexico is not enacting their DWI programs effectively.  The report called New Mexico’s current enforcement of DWI “weak” and “untargeted”.

According to the report, DWI patrols have dropped, leading to the decrease in DWI arrests, despite a rising population in New Mexico.

“We generally will look at DWI arrest trends along with crash trends to give a truer picture of what’s going on with DWI in our state,” said Linda Atkinson, executive director of the New Mexico DWI Resource Center.

DWI arrest rates have been decreasing from 2007, dropping from 20,000 to 12,000 in 2014.

“Our courts are not transparent, nor are they held accountable, and unfortunately the public does not know how poorly they do in getting conviction rates up,” Atkinson said.

Atkinson says the criminal justice system has four major players  which consist of law enforcement officers, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges. She says for years, “games” have been played in the courtroom, which continues leading to a drop in conviction rates.

“If you were to observe them, you would quickly see why the convictions rates are so low,” Atkinson said.

Atkinson said ineffective laws and sanctions placed on DWI offenders are the reasons for low DWI conviction rates.

“We can pass laws all day long and if we don’t change the court system, the laws are meaningless and we will not reduce death and injury,” Atkinson said.

Atkinson said current New Mexico DWIs laws can be more effective by introducing four tactics:

– More effective detection and higher arrests for DWIs

– Having DWI cases fully prosecuted

– Give meaningful sanctions to DWI offenders

– Have said sanctions completed by the offender.

“New Mexico and Albuquerque in particular fall way short in achieving any of these four things,” Atkinson said. “The research is solid on this approach, yet New Mexico lacks the leadership and political will to change this situation, sadly.”

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