Capital News Service

Super drunk law’s impact draws mixed reviews

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It’s been 12 years since Michigan began enforcing its “super drunk” law, and law enforcement officials are divided on how effective the charge has been in stopping intoxicated drivers from getting behind the wheel.

A super drunk charge applies to drivers who blow a blood alcohol content level of .17 or higher, which is more than twice the legal limit. 

The most prominent recent case involves Rep. Mary Cavanagh, D-Redford, who was arrested by Livonia police with a blood alcohol content of .176 and charged under the super drunk law. However, she accepted a plea bargain for a reduced charge, despite a previous alcohol-related conviction, and faces sentencing on May 6.

Doug Lloyd, the Eaton County prosecutor, said he believes the law is effective in discouraging people from driving under the influence.

“They are causing people to say, ‘Is this actually worth it?’” he said. 

The additional penalties that come with a super drunk driving conviction may be a deterrent for those deciding to get behind the wheel – or it may not, said Lloyd, the president of the state Prosecuting Attorneys Association,.

“People might actually be questioning and taking the time to go ‘should I be doing something different?’ such as getting a designated driver or Uber,” Lloyd said. 

The super drunk charge comes with maximum penalties up to $700 in fines, 180 days in jail, 320 days of restricted license and the installation of an ignition interlock device throughout that period.

A standard OWI charge comes with maximum penalties of fines up to $500, 93 days in jail and a restricted license for 150 days, but no required ignition interlock device. 

However, not every expert thinks the potential additional penalties are curbing the number of drunken driving incidents.

Matt Saxton, who is the CEO of the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association, said he hasn’t seen fewer intoxicated drivers as a result of the super drunk law.

Instead, he said, “I think the biggest deterrent to drunk driving is enforcement.” 

Saxton said there are “a thousand less cops on the streets” now than in 2019, and that there has been a correlating increase in fatal car crashes since then.

“We need to get back to having good traffic enforcement,” he said. “And that doesn’t mean just out writing tickets, but it is a deterrent to drunk drivers if they fear there’s law enforcement out.”

In 2020, breath tests over .17 blood alcohol content made up 35% of the total breathalyzer tests given by the State Police, according to the department’s annual drunk driving audit. 

However, that doesn’t mean that all drivers who blew at these high levels were charged under the super drunk law.

Saxton said that for first-time offenders, it is often used to encourage a plea bargain in which a defendant pleads guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for giving up the right to a trial. 

“Depending on their previous history, oftentimes in the past the super drunk (charge) will be thrown out and they would plead guilty to operating while impaired,” Saxton said. 

Lloyd said another factor could be how much over the .17 blood alcohol content threshold a driver tested. 

“One of the things the prosecutor will look at is what exactly was the person’s blood alcohol content when they were arrested,” he said. 

Lloyd said the decision whether to charge a super drunk violation depends on the prosecutor’s office handling the case.

“Different prosecutors could have different philosophies, in the sense they could say, ‘If you’ve reached that level, we are considering you a danger to public safety and we aren’t going to reduce it,’” said Lloyd, but other counties might allow a plea deal. 

In February, Cavanagh was arrested for drunken driving. She also has a 2015 operating while impaired conviction.

She was charged under the super drunk law but pleaded guilty to a lower charge of operating while impaired, conditioned on her acceptance into Livonia District Court’s sobriety court program. 

Sobriety courts offer comprehensive treatment and support programs that often require an individual to become sober through probation, 12-step programs and counseling.

Saxton said such programs show significant success in decreasing the likelihood of a future violation.

“There are really good outcomes when you don’t see graduates of these courts re-offending,” he said. “They have made great strides in dealing with repeat offenders of drunk driving.” 

In 2020, the State Police administered 9,454 breathalyzer tests. Of them, 3,882 were at or above the .17 blood alcohol content threshold.

The Department of State Police is still working to release its annual drunk driving audit for 2021.

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