“Tough” and “Lenient” DWI/DUI Judges

Real life isn’t Lake Woebegone, where all the children are above average. In reality,

  • half of all lawyers are below the average of all lawyers in the results they obtain,
  • half of all leading brain surgeons are below the average of all leading brain surgeons in their surgical skill,
  • half of all college professors are below the average intelligence of all college professors, and
  • half of all judges who hear DUI/DWI cases will have conviction rates below the average of all judges who hear such cases.

The American system of justice is based on the principle that it’s better to let the guilty go unpunished than to punish the innocent. Breath tests of blood alcohol concentration (BAC) are really simply estimates of BAC, which can only be tested accurately by drawing a sample of blood. That’s why not all states permit the use of breathalyzer estimates to be used.

Because of many reasons, breathalyzers are several times more likely to record a falsely high than a falsely low BAC reading. This suggests that the innocent are several times more likely to be falsely convicted than the guilty are to go unpunished.

Judges who are more inclined to find in favor of defendants may let more guilty people go without punishment. Similarly, judges who are more inclined to find in favor of the prosecution may falsely punish more innocent victims.

This doesn’t prove that a “tough” judge is punishing the innocent or that a “lenient” judge is turning the guilty back onto the roads. Each has to be evaluated on the basis of a sophisticated analysis of all cases heard by that judge and others in the same jurisdiction, along with all other relevant factors.

Many factors enter into conviction rates. For example, in those counties in which officers mainly charge drivers with very high BACs, conviction rates should be higher than in counties in which officers charge large numbers of drivers who barely meet the unacceptable BAC limit.

It’s easy to criticize  judges who appear “soft” regardless of the facts of the cases involved. Instead of recklessly attacking judges based on emotions, we should fund careful analyses of the sentencing process in order to improve the courts’ ability to ensure justice while at the same time removing drunk drivers from the road.


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  • Chandler, Liz and Wright, Gary L. MADD: No DWI cases for judge. Charlotte Observer, August 11, 2004.
  • Hasse, W. K. Rhetorical Strategies: A Critical Analysis of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers. (Ohio University, M.A. thesis, 1983). Mothers Against Drunk Drivers was the original name of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
  • How Effective Are MADD's Efforts? USA Today, 1992, 120, 4.
  • Kinkade, P. T. The Unintended Consequences of California's 1982 Drunk Driving Laws: The Costs of Being "MADD." (Irvine, CA: University of California, Ph.D. dissertation, 1990).
  • Reinerman, C. Social Movements and Social Policy: “Mothers Against drunk driving,” Restrictive Alcohol Laws and Social Control in the 1980s. Berkeley, CA: Alcohol Research Group, School of Public Health, University of California, Berkeley, 1985.
  • Weed, F.J. Grass-roots activism and the drunk driving issue: A survey of MADD chapters. Law & Policy, 1987, 9(3), 259-278.

filed under: Driving Breathalyzer