Five years ago, the Utah Legislature -- reacting to national and local outcries against drunken drivers - toughened this state's DUI laws.
The changes made it illegal to drive with a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 percent - one of the lowest levels in the country - and added mandatory penalties, including automatic suspension of the offender's driver's license.Have the new laws accomplished their goal of ridding the roads of drunken motorists? How have law enforcement officers responded to the call? And are judges taking seriously the intent behind the toughened statutes, punishing offenders accordingly?
Although the statistics can't prove whether there are fewer drunken drivers on the roads - only a series of police roadblocks could do that - figures compiled by the Utah Highway Safety Office show a definite decrease in alcohol-related accidents in which someone was killed.
The number of alcohol-related accidents that resulted in non-fatal injuries has also decreased since the new laws went into effect.
In 1982, 38 percent of all fatalities involved alcohol. Last year, it was only 28 percent.
Alcohol-related accidents resulting in injury numbered 1,459 in 1983. Last year's injury statistics weren't available, but in 1986, there were 1,271 alcohol-related injury accidents, the year before that only 1,198.
If arrests are an indication of reality, the DUI laws don't seem to be working: DUI arrests have increased steadily since 1983.
But the increase in arrests could also be attributed to increased aggressiveness by police officers intent on catching the drunken driver.
In 1983, police arrested 12,500 people for DUI in Utah. In 1984, 13,942 were arrested; in 1985 the number was 13,664; in 1986 it was 13,544; and in 1987, 13,203.
Salt Lake Police Officer Jim Prior, who has studied DUI statistics for several years until a federal grant ran out in April, said it is hard to measure the impact of the new drunken-driving laws.
"It initially scared off the first-offenders," Prior said. "But it doesn't seem to be scaring the repeat offenders. There are some guys out there who have had their licenses revoked on a DUI and continue to drive under the influence. But the majority of offenders, (the laws) will have an effect on."
The effectiveness of any law is measured, to a large degree, by how it is disposed of in the courts.
Sgt. Dennis Platt of the Utah Highway Safety Office believes the laws are adequate, but that judges are handing out far too many community service sentences.
"Community service is not a deterrent, in my opinion. You put someone in a drunk tank for 48 hours and they're going to get a good, hard memory of that experience."
But Greg Skordas, a deputy Salt Lake County attorney, believes that jail isn't always the answer, particularly on a first offense.
"If someone like you or me is arrested for the first time on a DUI and thrown into jail, which is just a miserable place, we'll come out of there mad at the system," said Skordas.
A look at the statistics reveals judges, for the most part, are doing more than simply "slapping the wrists" of drunken drivers.
Driving under the influence of alcohol is a class B misdemeanor, punishable by a $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail.
Mandatory requirements force judges to sentence first-offenders to 48 hours in jail or 24 hours of community service; 240 hours jail time or 80 hours of community service to second-offenders; and 720 hours jail or 240 hours of community service to offenders who have been arrested three or more times.
According to figures compiled by the safety office, the average drunken driver in 1987 paid $480 in fines, served 120 hours in jail and performed 146 hours of community service.
Repeat offenders were treated more harshly: They averaged $488 in fines, 192 hours in jail and 134 hours of community service.
When drunken driving results in a death, the charges are felonies. But unless the offender kills several people or unless he's a repeat offender, he isn't prosecuted much more severely than a drunken driver who didn't kill anyone.
Drunken drivers who kill people are charged with vehicle homicide, a third-degree felony. Sometimes, a case may increase in severity to manslaughter, a second-degree felony, usually if the driving was reckless.
In second-degree cases, the defendant, if he is a first-time offender, will usually be allowed to plead to a third-degree felony. (See accompanying story.)
Statewide statistics on average sentences for vehicle homicide are unavailable, but a case-by-case look at completed 1987 vehicle homicide prosecutions in Salt Lake County can provide insights into what the courts are doing:
***Robert H. Brown was charged with a third-degree felony for being intoxicated on Dec. 23, 1986, the day his pickup truck struck and killed a pedestrian in Big Cottonwood Canyon. After being convicted, Brown was placed on one-year probation and fined $500 by 3rd District Judge Dennis Frederick. Brown was also enrolled in a mental health program.
***Mickey Pessetto, charged with a third-degree felony in the Dec. 12, 1986, traffic death of a 32-year-old Salt Lake man, was allowed to plead guilty to a class A misdemeanor. Judge Richard Moffat sentenced Pessetto to one year in jail, but released him after nine months and fined him $1,750.
***Charles P. Lingle was charged with a third-degree felony in the Nov. 15, 1986, traffic death of a companion. He pleaded guilty to a class A misdemeanor. Judge Raymond Uno placed Lingle on probation, ordered him to serve 150 hours of community service and fined him $2,500. The fine was later suspended because of Lingle's injuries and his inability to get employment because of them.
***Ronald H. Miller, 55, was sentenced to nine months in jail after being found guilty of vehicle homicide. Driving his camper truck, he backed over and killed his wife in the driveway. His blood alcohol level was 0.19 percent.
***Lonnie Reed, 29, was sent to prison for an indeterminate term of zero to five years by Judge Richard Moffat. Reed, who had two prior DUI convictions, was found guilty of being drunk Feb. 24, 1987, the day the utility truck he was driving slammed into a tow truck on westbound 21st South, ejecting a 35-year-old woman, who was killed almost instantly.
In short, of the five people prosecuted in Salt Lake County during 1987 for alcohol-related vehicle homicide, one was sent to prison, two served nine months in jail and the other two were placed on probation.
Deputy Salt Lake County Attorney Kent Morgan said it's his office's policy to be intolerant toward drunken drivers. "We won't put up with it because of the tragedy that often results," said Morgan.
However, most accidents involving drunken drivers are not intentional, he said. "So when we start looking for prison time, we are looking for priors and for recklessness and for the impact on the community. Arguing for prison is important because it puts the defendant in a position of having to explain how he'll change, how he'll make reparations and ensure that he'll never do it again."
Cases are usually pleaded down to lesser charges when the victim's family would rather not go through with a trial, and when there are questions about the evidence and facts. In general, Morgan said, justice is being served under the existing drunken driving laws.