Fact Check: Fighting Drunk Driving in San Diego - Voice of San Diego

Fact Check UNVEILING THE UNSEEN

Fact Check: Fighting Drunk Driving in San Diego

City Attorney Jan Goldsmith claimed more than 99 percent of DUI cases prosecuted by his office result in convictions.

Statement: “Our office prosecuted more than 5,500 DUI cases last year with a conviction rate of higher than 99 percent,” City Attorney Jan Goldsmith said in a June 26 press release.Misleading

Determination: Misleading

Analysis: City Attorney Jan Goldsmith wants you to know that if you’re pulled over for drunk driving in San Diego, you’re almost certain to pay.

“Our office prosecuted more than 5,500 DUI cases last year with a conviction rate of higher than 99 percent,” City Attorney Jan Goldsmith declared in a June 26 press release.

He made the statement as he hailed the U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal to hear an appeal of a San Diego-based case that barred expert witnesses who challenge the reliability of alcohol-breath testing equipment in California. Goldsmith said the decision was “a major victory in the war against drunk driving in California.”

Goldsmith’s claim that his office has more than a 99 percent DUI conviction rate seems to indicate the city attorney’s office is a leader in that fight. We decided to investigate further and found that Goldsmith’s claim was rosier than the reality.

Goldsmith’s statement implied his office was more successful at popping DUI offenders for DUI than it is. His calculation included people arrested for DUI but convicted of lesser charges such as reckless driving.

When you eliminate those convictions from the equation, the city’s DUI conviction rate drops substantially. Goldsmith’s statement is misleading.

Let’s take a closer look at the numbers.

Goldsmith’s office provided a breakdown of DUI cases city attorneys prosecuted in 2012 and 2013. The numbers show that in both years DUI cases resulted in some kind of prosecution more than 99 percent of the time.

But those numbers include more than just DUI convictions. In fact, at least 20 percent weren’t for a straightforward DUI offense.

In 2013, the city attorney’s office issued more than 940 plea agreements for what’s known as a “wet reckless,” a reduced charge that implies the offender was driving recklessly and that alcohol was involved. Prosecutors can only offer suspects this charge as part of an agreement to plead guilty. In other words, you can’t be arrested for a “wet reckless” offense.

Two veteran attorneys who specialize in DUI cases told Voice of San Diego prosecutors sometimes suggest this option if there’s not clear proof that the accused was legally intoxicated or if the person doesn’t have a previous DUI conviction, among other reasons.

Such a conviction can come with significant penalties, including license suspension, probation and even jail time. But the penalties aren’t nearly as severe as those leveled against DUI offenders.

Without so-called “wet reckless” convictions, Goldsmith’s office would have a roughly 80 percent DUI conviction rate. Factoring in other offenses – such as a drunk in public or a non-drug or alcohol-related reckless driving charge – might bring the rate down further. We asked the city attorney’s office for data on other non-DUI convictions included in the total, but a spokesman declined to provide it.

Goldsmith’s argument is weakened even further when you compare his definition of a conviction rate to the state’s. The state Department of Motor Vehicles only includes misdemeanor and felony DUI convictions into its calculation of a DUI conviction rate.

DMV research specialist Sladjana Oulad Daoud told us that including anything other than DUI convictions in the rate would be misleading. She said that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also doesn’t factor lesser offenses into its DUI conviction rate calculations.

A Goldsmith spokesman defended the city attorney’s statement as one that simply explained that the vast majority of DUI cases result in convictions.

“Our office prosecuted more than 5,500 individual DUI cases last year,” spokesman Michael Giorgino said. “More than 99 percent of DUI cases that reached a disposition in 2013 resulted in a criminal conviction.”

But Goldsmith’s original statement doesn’t make a distinction between DUI convictions and others. It was akin to claiming a conviction rate of more than 99 percent for bank robbers when a significant chunk of bandits were convicted of jaywalking as they fled the scene .

That’s misleading.

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