Delaware County adds dedicated drunk-driving prosecutor

Above: A police officer making a drunk driving arrest. Photo by Flickr user Jeffrey Smith.

Delaware County will have a full-time prosecutor for Driving While Intoxicated (DWI) cases following action of the county's board of supervisors on Wednesday, July 22.

The board adopted a resolution creating a new position in the couny district attorney's office.

The resolution states that the county “recognizes that effective and efficient prosecution of DWI offenses in the local criminal courts is needed, but is time consuming and requires specialized training and experience.” It notes that the current assistant district attorneys “have extensive caseloads relating to non-DWI offenses” and says a full-time DWI prosecutor “is necessary.”

Masonville Supervisor Michael Spaccaforno, the chairman of the legislative committee of the Delaware County Board of Supervisors, said that the position would be created on a trial basis for two years. He said there was enough accumulated money in the “Special Traffic Options Program for Driving While Intoxicated” (STOP-DWI) program to fund the position that long.

STOP-DWI Coordinator Scott Glueckert, who is also the county's probation director, said that DWI conviction rates in the county have been declining and that money from the program can be used to reverse that trend. “We've got this excess money and we need to spend it in a constructive way,” Glueckert said. STOP-DWI program funding comes from fines levied against DWI offenders.

Glueckert said that defense attorneys have been more aggressive in battling DWI charges in recent years as the consequences of convictions, including increased fines, longer license suspensions and the requirement for ignition interlock devices, have become more severe.

“These cases drag out for four, six, eight months,” he said. He said he expects DWI arrests to increase, as well, as police see more results from their efforts.”They'll see this as a commitment on the part of Delaware County,” he said. “I expect to see an upswing in all the areas.”

Glueckert also said that New York State Police officers used to appear in court to prosecute DWI cases, but that the practice was discontinued about 10 years ago, putting the burden on local prosecutors. He estimated that the cost of the salary and fringe benefits for the new prosecutor would be about $100,000 per year. Spaccaforno said that it was Glueckert who spurred the move.

“Scott's been complaining for a couple of years that they've been making a lot of arrests and they’re not getting the prosecutions right,” Spaccaforno said. “He wants to make sure that the prosecutions stick and there are more of them.” Spaccaforno called the funding from STOP-DWI a “jump-start” and said that he hopes that the position will sustain itself through increased convictions and fines.

District Attorney Richard Northrup said on Thursday that he welcomes the help.

Northrup noted that his office has had a part-time DWI prosecutor in the past.

“Our conviction rate definitely improved when we had a dedicated prosecutor,” Northrup said. “We'll be glad to try it.”

Northrup said he is looking to fill the position “right now” and hopes to have it filled “sooner rather than later.”

He agreed with Glueckert that defense attorneys are working harder to help their clients avoid onerous penalties. Under administrative rules from the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles, he said, the licenses of DWI offenders can be suspended for life in some cases.

“Defense attorneys are very wary of that,” he said. Northrup said that prosecuting DWI cases is a major undertaking because of the many motions, discovery demands, hearings and challenges to evidence.

“It's more complicated to prosecute a DWI than it is a murder case, a lot of times,” he said.

Northrup said that his office prosecuted 172 DWI cases in 2014 and has prosecuted 93 so far this year. “There's certainly enough to keep a full-time prosecutor busy,” he said.