Advocate Editorial Board opinion: Plea bargains serve important purpose
Drunken driving is a dangerous action that has the potential to and often does end in tragedy.
In Victoria, we have seen that reality firsthand when Christopher Cordil-Cortinas, a man who is accused of driving while intoxicated, ran from police and struck another vehicle, resulting in the death of Cynthia Partida, according to police reports. Cordil-Cortinas was previously convicted of three DWI offenses and had just been released from jail a day or two before the incident.
When asked why a repeat offender was released without a judge hearing all the facts about his criminal past, Victoria County District Attorney Steve Tyler chose to take personal responsibility and take steps to change the policy in question. We applaud Tyler for this decision.
Recently, Tyler has announced another change to how DWI cases are handled: Plea deals are no longer available for people charged with first- or second-time misdemeanor DWI offenses. The new policy will not affect offenders charged with a third or more DWI, which then becomes a felony.
The purpose of this decision is to ensure that all the facts are presented to a fact-finder, such as a judge or jury, and an appropriate punishment can be given, Tyler said in a previous article.
This decision, which is clearly aimed to protect the public, means that anyone accused of a DWI will have to go through a trial and face a judge or jury. We understand the desire to protect the public, especially after the unnecessary death of a member of our community, but we wonder if this is more of an emotional overreaction to the situation.
As much as we would like to see every case as black and white, life is not always that simple, and the same thing applies to the justice department. The flexibility to allow officials to use their judgment, especially in the case of first-time offenders, should not be removed. In the case of Cordil-Cortinas, these changes would not have applied. Cordil-Cortinas was already convicted of his third offense, a felony, before he was released.
In 2013 alone, there were 237 DWI misdemeanor cases filed in Victoria County. Under the new policy, every one of those cases would need to go to trial. That puts additional stress on our courts system and could greatly increase the financial burden associated with employing public defenders for defendants.
Victoria County already has DWI programs in place, which former County Court-at-Law No. 1 Judge Laura Weiser championed, focused on providing treatment for those convicted of DWIs. We agree that protecting the public is important, but part of that process is ensuring that people who have started down the path of drinking and driving are given treatment to help them break the destructive habit. Victoria County should focus on ensuring that these programs are being used to their maximum potential before implementing blanket policies that could result in more people in jail with fewer opportunities to receive the treatment they need to turn themselves around and prevent more drunken driving incidents in the future.
As the saying goes, the punishment should fit the crime. By the same token, the solution should fit the problem. There is no denying that drunken driving is a serious problem, but plea bargains are also not meant to be get-out-of-jail-free cards. The district attorney is right to take a more proactive stance on addressing DWI cases, but this step may be a bit too much too quickly. We should ensure that our current programs are being used correctly before making more changes.
This editorial reflects the views of the Victoria Advocate's editorial board.