Anchorage police arrested almost 2000 adults for drunk driving in 1996. What were the results of these arrests? What were the characteristics of the arrestees? The Justice Center, in conjunction with Anchorage Safe Communities, has recently completed a study of the city's 1996 DWI cases which shows that the typical individual arrested for drunk driving was a white male in his thirties, with no prior DWI conviction. He was a resident of Alaska and held a valid driver's license. His blood alcohol content was almost always above the legal limit. Most cases were prosecuted as misdemeanors and the defendant usually pleaded guilty before trial.
The Justice Center research focused on describing the disposition process; describing the legal and demographic makeup of the population of adults arrested by APD in 1996 for driving an automobile or motor cycle while intoxicated; and analyzing the predictive strength of legal and extralegal variables on the outcomes of the adjudication process. Researchers drew upon four sources for data: the Anchorage Police Department vehicle seizure records; the Alaska Third Judicial District Court records; the Anchorage Municipal Prosecutor's Office case files; and case files of the Office of the Anchorage District Attorney. A literature review isolated the variables to be considered in the study (Table 1).
The prosecutor's case files were the principal source of data for these legal and extralegal variables. The APD vehicle seizure forms included: the APD case number, the age of the arrestee at the time of the stop, the arrest status, and the location of the arrest. Court files provided information on sentences.
The study used a random sample of 400 arrest cases drawn from APD records for 1996. Researchers were able to locate satisfactory data for 361 of the cases, or 90.25 per cent of the sample. Because data collection centered primarily around the case files of the prosecutors, little information emerged on those cases in which charges were not pursued. Since the decision not to pursue charges is in itself an arrest disposition, the results of this study are best viewed as pertaining to dispositions of filings rather than dispositions of arrests. (The principal reason for not pursuing charges may have been low blood alcohol content (BAC). In 17 of the 34 cases in the sample for which charges were not filed, the suspect's BAC was under .10.)
Table 2 highlights demographic characteristics of arrestees in the sample studied. The majority of arrestees were male, over 30 years old, white, and residents of Alaska. A serious traffic violation was the most frequently-noted reason for stopping a person subsequently arrested for a DWI (Table 3), and crashes were the next most frequent reason. The data suggest that DWI arrests are most frequently made incidental to other traffic enforcement duties. The majority of those stopped had BAC levels above .10.
Table 4 presents arrest disposition information. A substantial majority of arrestees were released before trial, and about half were represented by appointed counsel. Half of those arrested had no prior DWI arrests, and less than 25 per cent had more than one such arrest. The majority of those arrested pleaded not guilty at their initial trial but changed at the point of final disposition, with 89 per cent then pleading guilty or no contest. It is noteworthy that just one arrestee of those who went to trial was found not guilty.
A complex and convoluted process begins when the police officer makes the decisions to take someone into custody for driving while intoxicated. The flow of arrestees through the adjudication process was quite similar for all the demographic groups analyzed (Figures 1 and 2). Figure 1 presents the process of adult DWI offenders from when they were stopped by the police through the first court appearance; Figure 2 (on page 4) shows the process from first appearance through adjudication. Percentage breakdowns for the sample cases studied are shown for each point in the process.
Correlates of Disposition
The Justice Center study examined the relation between several legal and extralegal variables, which are listed in Table 1, and the final sentences imposed on the DWI offenders and the length of time to disposition. (The relation between these variables and the question of guilt was not explored, because only one arrestee was acquitted at trial and because for those cases in which charges were not filed, too much information was lacking.)
The average elapsed time between arrest and sentencing in the cases studied was approximately 80 days. The average time sentenced was approximately 145 days, while the average time served was 35 days. The average fine was slightly more than $1300.
Arrestees with prior DWI convictions received longer sentences with larger fines, and it took longer to dispose of the case. The presence of appointed counsel also correlated with more severe outcomes—longer times to disposition, higher fines and longer sentences. However, the sentence served was not statistically longer, and those represented by appointed counsel were also more likely to have their fines suspended.
Finally, it is worth noting that the existence of aggravating circumstances (involvement in a crash; running a stop sign or red light; the presence of an open container of alcohol; being on probation or having a pending DWI; recklessness or leaving the scene; BAC greater than .15) did not appear to affect case disposition. Future research might explore these factors in more depth and also examine the guilty/not guilty question.
Robert Langworthy, Director of the Justice Center, and Peter Crumm, a research analyst with the Center, conducted the research discussed in the preceding article. The project was conducted in conjunction with Anchorage Safe Communities and was funded by a grant from the Alaska Highway Traffic Safety Planning Agency, Alaska Department of Transportation. Copies of the entire report are available from the Justice Center. The report is also available at the Justice Center web site: http://www.uaa.alaska.edu/just/.