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VOL. 132 | NO. 18 | Wednesday, January 25, 2017

State DAs Fighting for Funds Threatened by IMPROVE Act

By Sam Stockard

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Tennessee’s district attorney generals are negotiating with the governor’s office to keep $5.6 million for DUI enforcement and prosecution, federal funds they could lose in an unintended consequence of his proposed IMPROVE Act.

“This program has a proven track record of saving lives on Tennessee’s highways, and everyone involved with this program understands if the program goes away there will likely be more traffic fatalities,” says Jerry Estes, executive director of the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference. “The data supports that.”

In 2016, the state totaled 4,606 alcohol-related crashes, down from 6,887 five years ago and 6,540 the previous year, according to a letter to the governor’s office from the DA Conference. Yet the number of dispositions for all categories of DUI/traffic-related crimes statewide increased to 12,085 in 2016 from 9,478 in 2013, indicating an “increasing trend in arrests” requiring more specialty DUI prosecutors.

Part of Gov. Bill Haslam’s plan to raise $278 million annually to start cutting into the state’s $10.5 billion backlog in road and bridge projects includes passing an open container law so $18 million in federal funding can be shifted to the transportation fund from the Highway Safety Program.

Under existing law, the funds are restricted and can’t be used for road projects because state law conflicts with federal guidelines, which prohibit any open alcoholic beverages in vehicles. Tennessee law allows open containers in vehicles as long as the driver doesn’t have one.

Of the “open container” funds from the federal government, $8 million goes to Department of Transportation safety measures; $2.8 million to media for advertising such as “click it or ticket” and “booze you lose”; $4.5 million to local law enforcement for overtime; and $4.9 million to DUI/traffic offense prosecution, according to information from the DA Conference.

If the federal money is shifted to transportation, it would take $5.6 million in DUI Abatement Grants used for 30 assistant district attorneys, 24 coordinators and three positions in the DA General Conference office, affecting 25 of 32 districts across Tennessee, according to Estes.

Each DA’s district statewide has two or three grant positions funded by the federal money. The 30th District in Shelby County would lose $304,316 as a result of this shift, and Davidson County would lose $385,035, according to the DA General Conference.

“We’re not sure they were aware of this,” Estes says.

But Estes is certain DUI enforcement across Tennessee is working because of these personnel, who he says are vital in the increasingly specialized area of drunk-driving cases. Not only are DUI defendants using defense attorneys specializing in those cases, prosecutors are seeing a “new wave of challenges,” according to Estes, in blood-alcohol results and growing use of opioids.

Personnel from the grants also provide DUI enforcement training for Tennessee Highway Patrol and local sheriff’s offices and police departments.

The open container penalty money has been used by the Highway Safety Office for 14 years to fund DUI prosecutors and coordinators. A 2007 study showed a 21 percent increase in DUI conviction rates when a specialized prosecutor handled the case instead of a non-specialized prosecutor.

“Since about 75 percent of drivers convicted of first-offense DUI do not commit any more DUI offenses, numerous lives have been saved in Tennessee,” states a letter sent by the DA Conference to the governor’s office.

In negotiation

The DA General Conference is talking with the governor’s office on the matter, and individual DA’s offices statewide are sending letters asking Haslam to reconsider the open container provision of the IMPROVE Act.

District Attorney Mike Dunavant of District 25 in southwest Tennessee just outside Shelby County, was one of numerous DAs across the state who sent letters to the governor’s office.

Dunavant, who is vice president of the DA Conference, declined to provide the letter but said he “expressed concern about the unintended consequence of changing the open container law.” He noted “it is widely known” funding for the assistant DA positions and DUI prosecution is affected by federal guidelines.

Shifting the money and potentially losing those assistant DAs and other positions “has a direct impact on public safety and the administration of justice,” Dunavant contends.

Dunavant says he sent the letter to let the governor know the consequences of changing the open container law and hopes to have a “meaningful conversation” with the governor’s office as the session opens and legislation is filed.

Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, who has spoken with a DA from his district about the matter, believes the governor’s office wants to evaluate the matter. Norris points out, however, this situation could be “too problematic” for the Legislature to deal with this session.

Asked about it early Wednesday, Haslam says he is aware the state funds DUI prosecutors through the restricted federal funding.

“I think we’re willing to look at other ways to make certain that that function gets paid for. We realize that’s critical,” Haslam says. “We would go back to not having the open container, (which) has meant the federal government’s telling us how we can spend that $18 million.

“I think we should choose how we spend that and then decide do we want to fund DUI DAs another way. But in the meantime, money that should be going to roads should go to roads.”

State Rep. William Lamberth, a former assistant district attorney who chairs the House Criminal Justice Committee, says it is “unacceptable” for these positions to be lost.

“One way or the other, we need to make sure we have enough assistant district attorneys on staff to be able to prosecute individuals that are an absolute hazard on our roadways,” Lamberth says.

Whether the money comes from the general fund or federal grants, the state should ensure those specialized DAs continue work “for the safety of the state,” he notes.

Says Estes, “Once you lose a human life, you never get it back.”

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for The Memphis Daily News. He can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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