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The Judgments of Judges Questioned in New York DWI Cases

James M Wagman

Recently released statistics are making headlines in New York, as an analysis of driving while intoxicated (DWI) conviction rates by the Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester has revealed some surprising information. Specifically, the analysis revealed a significant disparity between Monroe County’s overall conviction rate for DWI (73 percent) and the conviction rate for those who proceed to a non-jury trial (14.8 percent).

Many are ready to jump to conclusions regarding the implications of this information. To some, this disparity indicates that judges are being too lenient and letting those accused of DWI off too easily. In many cases, these trials result in convictions for driving while ability impaired (DWAI), a lesser offense.

However, the numbers only tell one part of the story. Perhaps the most obvious way to account for this disparity is to recognize that all accusations are not identical, or equally likely to lead to a non-jury trial.

When the case against someone accused of DWI is very strong, that person is arguably more likely to plead. When the evidence is weaker, the person accused of driving while intoxicated would reasonably be more likely to take the case to trial. Accordingly, the lower conviction rate may not reflect leniency on the part of the judge, but a weak case on the part of the prosecution.

It is important to remember that there is a huge difference between being accused of a crime and being guilty of a crime. Those accused of DWI are entitled to a trial, where the prosecution must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. When the prosecution cannot meet this burden, the judge must decide in favor of the accused.

The seemingly low rates of conviction have also raised concerns about the role of judicial discretion. As the logic goes, laws should apply to everyone equally; if the judges are being lenient for those who proceed to trial, it is not fair to those who plead guilty.

Again, one must first consider the strength of the case; if there is reasonable doubt that a crime was committed, a conviction is not warranted. However, beyond this, judges are expected to use discretion. Judges must apply the particular facts of any given case and apply the laws accordingly. Guilt and innocence cannot be determined by a rigid mathematical formula – these decisions demand judgment, which is inherently discretionary.

Those accused of drunk driving must understand this fact, and can use it to effectively protect their rights and interests. For more information regarding DWI charges in New York, speak with a knowledgeable criminal defense attorney.