Most people arrested last year by the Payson Police Department for driving drunk pleaded guilty, spent a night in jail, paid a fine and had a ignition interlock device installed.
Two-thirds of people arrested from June 2007 to July 2008 pleaded guilty, with the remaining cases either pending or reduced to a lesser charge.
The Gila County Attorney’s office declined to prosecute only one case out of 77 submitted, based on the inability to place the suspect behind the wheel.
Based on the Roundup’s analysis of case records, if a Payson Police officer arrests you for driving drunk in Gila County, you will almost certainly face jail time for at least a day and steep fines of nearly $2,000.
“Arizona has some of the toughest DUI laws in the U.S.,” said Assistant Payson Town Attorney Tim Wright.
Last year, officers made 169 DUI arrests in Payson, Star Valley and Rye. Of those, 77 cases were sent to the Gila County Attorney’s office, which covers all felony cases for the Gila County and misdemeanor cases for Star Valley, which does not have a court.
The Payson attorney’s office received 88 misdemeanor cases. The remaining four cases could not be verified from the Town records.
“Most people arrested for misdemeanor DUI come into court the next day, plead guilty and take a plea deal and we never see them,” Wright said.
Last year, 109 people pleaded guilty to felony or misdemeanor charges.
The standard plea for a misdemeanor involves a $1,831 fine and 10 days in jail, with nine days suspended upon alcohol counseling. Since September of 2007, the Motor Vehicle Division has required installation of an ignition interlock device for a year. The device costs the driver $1,000 plus $80 a month.
In the cases where a person did not plead guilty, 20 have been indicted and await trial, three were indicted and are on warrant status, seven were sent to the Payson town attorney, three are pending follow up, one case has not been submitted by the police and one person plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge, according to the Gila County Attorney’s office.
The Payson town attorney handled the remaining cases, either dismissing the cases based on evidence or the defendant’s pleading guilty to a lesser charge. Wright said his office did not have a break down of the 20 cases.
In Arizona, DUI is impairment to the slightest degree by alcohol, drug, or having a blood alcohol level of .08 percent or higher.
Arizona statute 28-1381 A1 bars driving under the influence to the slightest degree, including being under the limit. Meaning you could have one drink, drive and be arrested.
For example, a person can be pulled over for expired tags and if an officer smells alcohol on their breath can arrest them based on probable cause they are under the influence.
Wright said the field sobriety test is not a pass-fail.
“An officer has to look at the totality. Do they think they are impaired to the slightest degree?” he said.
If there is probable cause, the driver is taken back to the station to take a breath or blood test.
Gila County Attorney Daisy Flores said at this point the attorney’s office receives the case and determines what should happen next.
If there is sufficient evidence to prosecute a misdemeanor case, then it will continue in Justice Court. The defendant can either take a plea deal or go to trial.
The case becomes a felony DUI if the driver has two prior convictions within the last seven years, they are driving with a suspended license or there is a child under 15 in the car. The case is re-filed through grand jury or a direct complaint to get to Superior Court. In Superior Court, the defendant can take a plea deal or go to trial, Flores said.
If a case is missing key elements and the evidence cannot be obtained, the case is dismissed.
“There is very little discretion in deciding whether to prosecute DUI cases,” Flores said. “The most common reasons that a DUI case is not pursued are that the results of the blood alcohol are under .08 or if we cannot prove that the suspect was behind the wheel or in actual physical control of the vehicle.”
If the person blows below the legal limit it is difficult to prosecute the case.
“Jurors want that over and under, they want to know the number,” Wright said. “As a prosecutor, I have a ethical duty to walk away if I don’t have sufficient facts.”
Other cases are dismissed until blood results come back from the lab, which can take up to 60 days for blood results and nine months for urine.
All dismissed DUI cases are filed with the governor’s office. The attorney’s office has to report why the case was dismissed.
In 2006, one out of every 139 drivers were arrested for driving under the influence in the U.S., according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
Based on the population of Payson and Star Valley around 17,300, one out of every 102 drivers was arrested for driving under the influence in fiscal year 2008.
From 2005 to 2006, the number of DUI arrests went up 4.3 percent, according to NHSTA.
Wright said he wonders if that is because there are more people driving impaired or if officers are doing a better job finding them.
In 2005, more than 16,000 people died in alcohol-related crashes, 39 percent of all traffic deaths, according to NHTSA.