Monday, December 10, 2007

New York Times article on County Attorney Stop DUI AZ billboards

A Starring Role for Drivers Who Drink
Published: December 10, 2007

A conviction for driving under the influence of alcohol is something many people try to conceal, even from their families. But now the bleary-eyed, disheveled and generally miserable visages of convicted drunken drivers here, captured in their mug shots, are available to the entire world via a Web site.

The hall of shame is even worse for drunken drivers convicted of a felony. A select few will find their faces plastered on billboards around Phoenix with the banner headline: Drive drunk, see your mug shot here.

The Web site and billboards, which began last month, are the brainchildren of Andrew P. Thomas, the county attorney here who has served as the prosecutorial counterpart to the county’s hard-edged sheriff, Joe Arpaio, who has been known to force inmates into pink underwear.

The purposes of the billboards and the Web site, Mr. Thomas has said, are to inform the public about drunken-driving laws, and to serve as a deterrent.

“People tend to like it, and it gets a message across to the offender,” said Mike Scerbo, a spokesman for Mr. Thomas, who declined to be interviewed. “We haven’t heard any complaints.” There are five billboards near freeways in the Phoenix area, with Mr. Thomas’s name in bold letters, and more will be up soon, Mr. Scerbo said.

While other states have used shame tactics like forcing convicted drunken drivers to use special license plates or pick up roadside litter wearing a placard announcing their crimes, defense lawyers and the spokeswoman for the national chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving said they had never heard of billboards or the Internet being used as scarlet letters.

The billboards will only feature convicted felons, whose crimes, which almost always involve someone’s death, are explained in detail on the Web site, But those convicted of misdemeanors can be found on the site if the localities where they were convicted are willing to provide the mug shots and conviction information.

“I just can’t believe he’s doing it,” said Mark Weingart, a defense lawyer in Tempe who has advised hundreds of people facing charges of driving under the influence. “Besides the fact that it is in bad taste, D.U.I.’s usually involve somebody with no criminal history. The downside to this person being published on the Web site is tremendous. I don’t see the point. Why doesn’t he put sex offenders up there?”

The tactic gets mixed reviews from M.A.D.D.

“Some parts of the Web site are good because they are informational and trying to provide the victim’s perspective,” said Misty Moyse, the spokeswoman for the group. However, she said, “M.A.D.D. would not want to be involved in calling out offenders. We are interested in research- and science-based activities proven to stop drunk driving.” Those activities include putting devices on the cars of prior offenders that they are forced to breathe into in order to start their vehicles, a program Arizona has also embraced.

Last year, 32 percent of fatal accidents in the state involved a driver with a blood alcohol level above the legal limit of .08, about average among states.

Mr. Thomas, a Republican, took office as Maricopa County attorney in January 2005 after a campaign that focused on themes of law and order. He has greatly increased the percentage of first-degree murder cases in which the death penalty has been called for, and has put an emphasis on tough punishments. The drunken driving program, which costs roughly $700,000, is paid for via a state justice grant and through assets seized in racketeering convictions.

Calls to roughly a dozen people featured on the site were not returned. But James Coveney, whose son is featured under the misdemeanor section, said he found the measure draconian.

“I think it’s most unfair,” Mr. Coveney said. “Those individuals go through the court system, and that is how it is resolved. I feel this is an extreme invasion of privacy.”

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