Over the course of the past two decades I have observed a major shift in how juries view drivers who are charged with alcohol-related offenses. From the late 1980s through the early 2000s, the prevailing view of a DWI jury—whether it was a misdemeanor or a felony DWI jury—seemed to be, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Indeed, as I often explain to clients, a DWI is the one serious offense that impacts people from all walks of life. My DWI clients have included lawyers, judges, police officers, architects, engineers, and doctors.
However, over the last eight years or so, juries have adopted a very different perspective regarding these cases, especially in light of some of the high profile incidents in this area and the passage of legislation such as Leandra’s Law that elevates a misdemeanor DWI to a felony level offense when a child under 16 is in the vehicle. Leandra’s law is named after Leandra Rosado, an 11 year old girl who was killed in 2009 in a car accident that occurred when the mother of a friend of Leandra’s drove her vehicle while under the influence of alcohol. In the vehicle were seven children, but only Leandra was killed. Leandra’s Law is formally known as the Child Passenger Protection Act. It has been in place since December 18, 2009.
There are a number of components to the Act. First time offenders found to be operating a vehicle while intoxicated (having a blood alcohol content of .08 or higher) with a child under 16 years of age in the vehicle, can be charged with a Class E felony. Those convicted of a DWI, who had a child under 16 in the car at the time of the offense, face up to four years in state prison. Additionally, anyone convicted pursuant to Leandra’s Law must install a functioning Ignition Interlock Device in any vehicle they intend to operate for a minimum of 6 months. Since the passage of the Act, anyone convicted of a misdemeanor level alcohol related offense, even if it is a first time conviction, must install a functioning Ignition Interlock Device (IID).
I have observed that today’s jury members seem to feel that if they or someone they know was able to stop drinking and driving then the person who is on trial for DWI should have been able to stop drinking and driving as well. During voir dire I find that potential jurors are now much more likely to hold their neighbors’ feet to the fire, so to speak, in this area than they ever were before. Again, in the past people would often say, “That person who is on trial for an alcohol-related offense could be my neighbor or my dentist,” which is certainly not the case when you are trying a burglary, robbery, or assault case.
These days, however, juries are more likely to want to hold people accountable in relation to DWI offenses. In fact, when I am listening to jurors’ answers during voir dire, I find that they are often under the impression that my client probably had an opportunity to have the issues in their case resolved but refused to do so because they want their day in court
Essentially, when I am trying an alcohol-related offense I find that many jurors seem to be annoyed with the defendant for taking their chances at trial, as opposed to pleading guilty and accepting responsibility for their actions.
Article adapted from partner David C. Bruffett's chapter in "Inside the Minds: Strategies for Defending DWI Cases in New York, 2015 ed. published by Aspatore Books, A Thomson Reuters business.