Drunk Driving on Lockdown

By Aaron Curtis
acurtis@messengerpostmedia.com
Posted Nov. 21, 2015 at 9:15 PM

Canandaigua, N.Y.

While teaching a local drinking-and-driving program, Ontario County Stop-DWI Administrator Suzanne Cirencione will go through an exercise with students to determine the cost associated with a driving while intoxicated conviction.

With the cost of attorneys, fines, Department of Motor Vehicle fees and time off from work to deal with the criminal process, the DWI recipient can expect to cough up in excess of $5,000 in all, she said.

"That's for a first-time offense," Cirencione pointed out. "A felony offense is quite a bit more."

Lumped into that total is the cost associated with the guilty party's need for an ignition interlock device, or IID.

As part of the Child Passenger Protection Act — more commonly known as Leandra's Law — those sentenced for DWI after Aug. 15, 2010, must have an ignition interlock device installed in any vehicle they own or operate.

If after blowing into the device the driver is determined to have a blood alcohol content in excess of 0.025 percent, the vehicle will not start. The unit is capable of storing digitally an unlawful attempt to get the vehicle going, which will be revealed to prosecutors.

According to Cirencione, installation and deinstallation of the device costs in excess of $100, while there is a charge for possessing the equipment that ranges from $90 to $110 a month.

If the individual is locked out of a car after blowing into the IID while having a blood alcohol content in excess of 0.025 percent, a cost of $75 to $100 will be required to get the device working again for future use.

But the device is not solely about what it costs to possess and operate, but what it is intended to save, Cirencione said.

She references the five deaths in Ontario County since Jan. 1 involving people driving under the influence.

"We talk about cost, but the real cost is a person's life, and we're trying to protect the lives of everyone," she said.

Leandra's legacy

Leandra Rosada was on her way to a pajama party when the 11-year-old was killed after the station wagon she was traveling in crashed on a New York City highway in October 2009.

The parent driving the vehicle, Carmen Huertas, who was under the influence of alcohol at the time of the wreck, pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to four to 12 years in prison.

Leandra's legacy lives on through the Child Passenger Protection Act, signed into law in November 2009 — legislation that bears her name.

The legislation beefed up the punishments for all DWI charges associated with children and also created a mandate for the IID placement.

"This is a step in the right direction," Cirencione said. "Before 2010, you got your DWI, you pled, you paid your fine and you got your license back. The pain wore off a little quicker. The ignition interlock changes behavior."

Cirencione considers a brutal September crash in Seneca County that claimed the lives of two Ontario County residents as proof of the value of the IID.

In that case, Earl Wilson, 42, is accused of being drunk when he crossed the center line and collided with the motorcycle that was operated by Steven Lester of Manchester as he traveled on Route 96A in the town of Fayette.

The head-on wreck killed Lester and his girlfriend, Patricia Perryman of Canandaigua, who was a passenger on the motorcycle.

"(Wilson) is a guy with four DWIs, who was supposed to have the ignition interlock — and if his vehicle had it, that vehicle at least wouldn't have been involved," Cirencione said.

How it works

Once ordered by the court to install the IID in one's vehicle, the convicted party must order a device and then contact a mechanic who is licensed to install the machinery.

"I've installed four just this week," said Mark Dean, owner of Dean's Autogenesis, on Friday. The Canandaigua-based mechanic is one of the few mechanics in the area who installs the devices.

On Friday afternoon, one of Dean's mechanics was at work hooking the IID to a vehicle's ignition system. Once installed, the device has the ability to record any attempts to start the vehicle, as well as recording the alcohol level of the individual blowing into the hand-held device and any attempts that person makes to bypass the unit.

The IID requires that the individual hum as they blow into the device, as the contraption has the capability of voice recognition to determine if a forced-air device is being used to trick the unit.

What about an individual who is under the influence seeking out a friend to blow into the device for them? That's not advisable, as the item carries out a "rolling retest." After driving for 5 to 15 minutes, the person is asked to submit another breath test. Throughout longer drives, the driver also is asked at random to submit a test.

A forced-air device to trick the unit or finding a sober friend to blow into the device would be futile, anyway. A camera installed along with the IID has the ability to take a photo of whoever or whatever is blowing into the device — an image that is stored for prosecutors to view.

So far in 2015, there have been 202 DWI convictions, and of those, 112 have resulted in IID installations, according to Cirencione. Of those 112, there have been 73 violations for continued use of alcohol that have been caught by the installed units.

"We will very aggressively investigate and prosecute those violations," said Ontario County Assistant District Attorney Nathan Thomas.

In one case, both people was arrested after a motorist used a friend to trick the device — the individual received a conditional discharge for DWI and was placed on probation, while the person who took the test for him was sentenced to community service and had to attend a victim impact panel.

Order ignored

Despite being ordered by the courts to install IIDs, a majority of convicted parties statewide aren't following through with the ignition mandate, according to state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.

Based on an audit carried out by the comptroller, only 26 percent of those ordered to install an IID in New York actually did comply, with an abysmal 5 percent carrying out the order in Leandra's home of New York City.

According to the audit, released in October, Ontario County is at 42 percent compliance, which is tied with Yates County for the fifth highest rate of compliance in the state.

"We want to get that number up over 50 percent," Cirencione said.

She points out that some people convicted of a DWI will swear on an affidavit in court that they are going to pursue installing the device in their vehicle, but then do not.

In order to keep an eye on this type of activity, Stop-DWI will run a driver's license, registration history and title history within a few days of the conviction in order to make sure that the convicted party does not have any vehicles registered to them. It will then run them again every 60 to 90 days to continue monitoring any unlawful activities.

"We have been doing everything that we can under the law to ensure compliance," Cirencione said.

Also, the potential penalties — including being criminally charged with offering a false statement — are communicated to those who are convicted of DWI.

"I think that is why our numbers are better," Cirencione said. "We have tried to educate the people as well as the magistrates and police officers, and try to have a team approach.

"We are aggressive in our efforts to say it is not OK to drink and drive," she added. "It is better to be tough so people know that we come out swinging."