Governor’s plan will help state with DWI reform

Gov. Susana Martinez is using an $800,000 federal grant and Twitter to help New Mexicans better play that age-old memory game “Whatever happened to …?” when it comes to drunken driving.

Now they will be able to also answer the “why?”

And then do something about it.

As in “Whatever happened to Gordon House — and why?”

Perhaps the state’s most infamous drunken driver, House was convicted after three trials on four counts of vehicular homicide in the 1992 deaths of a mother and three young daughters on Interstate 40. Sentenced to 22 years in prison, he served around half that because of “good time” laws.

And what ever happened to Scott Owen? The Santa Fe man acknowledged he was driving drunk when he killed four teenagers on Old Las Vegas Highway in 2009, yet was acquitted at trial. He was arrested for DWI again in 2012 and pleaded guilty, but the earlier crash did not count as a prior DWI because of the acquittal. He was arrested for DWI again in February.

High-profile DWI cases like those of House and Owen are easier for the public to track. Yet, they are a tiny fraction of drunken-driving cases in the state, each complex and fraught with challenges. Albuquerque’s Metropolitan Court alone cleared more than 3,000 DWI cases in fiscal 2015.

Yes, the state’s many individual courts do aggregate case data as to what happened — say acquittal, conviction, guilty plea, dismissal.

In 2014, for example: 1,920 of 3,853 DWI cases were dismissed in Metropolitan Court; the DA’s office saying more than half were because officers failed to appear in court, or for interviews with defense lawyers, or because of problems with obtaining lapel camera video of DWI arrests.

The courts do not aggregate the dismissals as to why. Martinez’s new court-monitoring program should help fill in some of those gaps and “identify where the judicial process can be strengthened.”

Starting in June, four Mothers Against Drunk Driving court monitors will each track about 200 cases a year, sending daily updates to the state Department of Transportation after court hearings of some DWI defendants in the counties with the most DWI cases (Bernalillo, Doña Ana, McKinley, Rio Arriba, Santa Fe and San Juan).

NMDOT plans to tweet case updates daily, letting folks who aren’t court insiders know the why of what happens with DWI cases, presumably including delays that run out the clock, officers who don’t show up in court, judges who rule prosecutors did not prove their case, prosecutors who strike plea deals because witnesses leave the state, laws that limit punishment, etc.

For too long, New Mexicans have had to rely on emotional, high-profile cases to try to push reform in the system that’s supposed to mete out justice in DWIs.

The governor’s program should bolster such efforts with data that show why, almost 25 years after Gordon House and seven years after Scott Owen, New Mexico continues to have a serious problem prosecuting DWI and holding offenders accountable.

Unsigned editorials are the opinion of Clovis Media Inc.’s editorial board, which consists of  Editor David Stevens and Publisher Rob Langrell.