DA: No plea bargains for misdemeanor DWIs

Jessica Priest By Jessica Priest

March 22, 2014 at 10 p.m.
Updated March 23, 2014 at 10:24 p.m.

Criminal District Attorney Stephen Tyler has taken plea deals off the table for those charged with driving while intoxicated a first or second time.

The new policy comes after a three-time convicted DWI offender, Christopher Cordil-Cortinas, allegedly drove drunk again, killing a mother of two, Cynthia Partida, while attempting to elude police last month.

"We're just going to go to a trial on all (misdemeanor) DWIs. That way, all the facts are in front of a fact-finder (a judge or a jury), who can assess punishment," Tyler said. "It's time for the focus to be more on protecting the public and less on rehabilitating or making the defendant comfortable."

Some think this policy is not feasible, though.

There is one jury docket every two weeks in County Courts-at-Law No. 1 and No. 2, and not all of them can be used during the year because some judges must cancel to take vacation time or if they're sick or if they need to attend a conference.

There were 237 DWI misdemeanor cases filed in 2013, 242 DWI misdemeanor cases filed in 2012 and 204 DWI misdemeanor cases filed in 2011.

For those three years, 110 of those cases had a court-appointed attorney, according to the county clerk's office.

A court-appointed attorney on a misdemeanor trial could charge the county a flat rate of $200, but some, if their clients elect to go to trial, opt to be paid between $30 and $75 an hour for the work they do in and out of the courtroom.

There were three misdemeanor DWI jury trials with court-appointed attorneys from 2011 to 2013, according to court records.

"It's going to cost the county more money, and it's going to cost my clients more money," said attorney Alex Hernandez Jr., who was shocked to learn of the change in court Monday. "I mean, my charge usually doubles if I have to try a case."

Bobby Mims, the president of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, was in New Orleans this week honing his DWI defense skills when it comes to challenging evidence obtained by gas chromatographs and blood analysis.

"There is an arms race on the education of prosecutors and defense lawyers, and we're winning," Mims said, chuckling.

In East Texas, where he practices, going to trial on a DWI means someone will have to "kiss between $5,000 and $10,000 goodbye," he said, but it all depends on the market and the skill level of the attorney. For some, winning a case is a cinch because jurors, too, have indulged in alcohol.

Bail is also typically set low for first-time DWI offenders, so they could get out of jail without treatment and drive drunk again, he said.

"If taxpayers in Victoria County want to buy a new jail, that's a new way to do it," Mims said.

The cost and time it'll take to begin this policy do not concern Tyler, just as he suspects it would probably not concern the Partida family.

"The same thing was said about sex offenders and going to trial with them because when I took office, they were routinely plead to deferred adjudication. It was rare that they would ever go to trial," Tyler said. "Everybody said it would be impossible, and the system couldn't bear it. You know what? People adjust, and they get used to a new norm."

Meanwhile, Hernandez said he believes in the DWI court program that former County Court-at-Law No. 1 Judge Laura Weiser championed.

It closely monitors second-time DWI offenders on probation and pairs them with treatment providers.

Hernandez's father, Court-at-Law 1 No. Judge Alex Hernandez, leads one in Calhoun County.

"People who harm themselves, whether it's drugs or alcohol, what they really need is help," Hernandez said.

The district attorney's office will honor deals that already have been struck, and this change will not affect those charged with DWI a third time, which is when the offense becomes a felony.

"I think that it's harder for someone to, I guess, game the system as well on felony probation," Tyler said, because the probation lasts longer and the offender can go to prison.

Weiser said she's puzzled by the solution Tyler has come up with as a result of this tragedy.

Cordil-Cortinas was not a part of the DWI court program, but when Weiser was involved, no one was forced to participate.

As far as she knows, "no one who has completed the DWI court program has been involved in a DWI accident resulting in injuries after that," she said.

The DWI court, which earns the county about $25 for each participant to go toward sustaining the program, has been dealt a "big blow," she said.

"I think the judges and the probation department and the other people on the DWI team are willing to do what they need to do to keep the program going, but it certainly is not the ideal situation because the prosecutor is a very integral part of the team," Weiser said. "None of the team members operate in an isolated capacity. That's the whole beauty of it: that everyone has input.

"There is a point where you do say, 'OK, we're going to protect the rest of us and lock you up,' but that is not after the first arrest," she said.

For someone who slips up a third time, prosecutors are even more empowered to seek harsher punishments because they can prove the county invested in treatment for the individual, and it did not work, she said.

The Advocate found, after analyzing reports from the Texas Office of Court Administration earlier this month, that while Victoria County incarcerated three-time DWI offenders at a rate on par with the rest of the state, that was not so on the misdemeanor level.

One hundred and twenty-one misdemeanor DWI offenders were sentenced to jail while 409 received probation. The state average was about 50-50 from Jan. 1, 2011, to Jan. 31, 2014, according to the reports.

Tyler said he has an open-door policy but is reluctant to change his mind about the policy change.

The events at South by Southwest music festival in Austin as well as several other intoxication manslaughter cases filed recently contributed to the decision, too, he said.

Hector Garcia, 46, of Victoria, was arrested on suspicion of intoxication manslaughter also in February, and John Florida, 31, of Victoria, has been indicted on several charges, including intoxication manslaughter, related to a May 2013 wreck that killed a woman.

"People who are addicted only rehab if they want to. How much risk should the public have to bear?" Tyler asked. "Whether we'll have to work hard or not, that won't factor in. I'm used to hard work."



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