Drunken drivers roll down state information gaps
By Jacquelyne Taurianen
OMAHA, Neb. — A Texas man arrested on suspicion of first-offense drunken driving posted a $200 bond and walked out of a Nebraska jail without facing a judge.
Only this wasn’t his first DUI arrest, or second, or even his third. It was 44-year-old Robert Hood’s fourth DUI arrest in three states in less than two weeks.
Hood, of Caldwell, Texas, is also known as Earl Hood. He was charged as a first-time offender under Nebraska law and allowed to pay 10 percent of the $2,000 bond because officials had no inkling of the other pending DUIs.
That’s because the FBI-run national computer system used by states shows only those people who have been fingerprinted when arrested. And the arrests of some suspects, such as Hood, can go undetected if they are not fingerprinted or if the information is delayed getting into the system.
In Hood’s case, the system did not show his recent DUI arrests — one in Wyoming, two in South Dakota.
That lack of information is allowing repeat DUI offenders across the country to easily post low bonds and go on their way.
And it alarms court officials.
"If judges are made aware of other pending charges, it could justify a higher bond to (ensure) the person appears in court," said Sarpy County Judge Todd Hutton, who sits on the bench in suburban Omaha. "The judges make their decisions based on the information they are provided. They can’t act on information that is not brought to their attention."
Hutton said that if prosecutors know a defendant has other pending charges, it could justify a higher bond.
John Fitzgerald, a state’s attorney in Deadwood, S.D., one of the places Hood was arrested, said the same problem exists in his state.
"The more (DUIs) you get the higher the bond," Fitzgerald said. "When you see someone who repeats something so dangerous, the bond can get pretty high even if it’s a misdemeanor."
To make matters worse, officials in most states don’t often know about other pending charges against a defendant within their own borders.
In Nebraska, people charged with a first-offense DUI do not have to have a formal hearing, but can instead pay bond according to a schedule, said Deputy Otoe County Attorney Tim Noerrlinger.
But the FBI is hoping a new national system, still in the pilot stage, will alert authorities when a defendant has multiple DUI offenses pending in other states.
The National Data Exchange or N-DEx for short, is designed to link local, state and federal records, said Tom Bush, assistant director of the FBI’s criminal justice information services.
Records say Hood was arrested on July 4 in Mitchell, S.D., when an officer found him passed out in his car. A test showed Hood tested 0.260 percent — more than three times the legal limit.
He was released on 10 percent of a $5,000 bail, a Davison County Circuit Court clerk said.
Hood’s second DUI arrest occurred three days later in Deadwood, S.D., a town in northwest South Dakota.
Chief Kelly Fuller of the Deadwood Police Department said Hood’s blood-alcohol content was 0.184 percent.
At the time, Hood’s arrest in Mitchell did not show up in state records, so he was charged with a first-offense DUI and released on another $500 bond.
The next day, Hood was arrested on suspicion of drunken driving in Platte County, Wyo., and charged with first-offense DUI. A test showed his blood-alcohol content was 0.160 percent, a Platte County circuit court official said.
On July 10, Hood was found guilty of a first offense DUI in Wyoming and sentenced to six months unsupervised probation, credited for two days he spent in jail and paid a $580 fine.
Hood was then arrested on suspicion of drunken driving at 8:30 a.m. on July 13 in Otoe County, Neb., about 50 miles south of Omaha. His blood-alcohol content was 0.081, just over the legal limit of 0.08, according to court records.
He was released after posting $200 bond, Otoe County Jail officials said.
Simara Reynolds, executive director of the Nebraska chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said Hood’s case was chilling.
"It is frightening to see someone charged so frequently in such a short period of time," she said.
Authorities are now looking for Hood after he failed to appear to multiple court dates. Warrants have been issued for his arrest.
Offenders with multiple DUI arrests are more common than most people think, said Laura Dean-Mooney, national president of MADD.
Dean-Mooney calls the current system a "catch and release" program, and she says changes are needed.
More than 2.8 million people on the road today have three or more DUI convictions, she said.
"Hard-core drunk drivers are clearly more dangerous," said Kevin Quinlan, chief of safety advocacy division at the National Transportation Safety Board in Washington D.C.
Hard-core drunken drivers as defined by National Transportation Safety Board are those with a prior drunken-driving arrest or conviction within the past 10 years or offenders with a blood-alcohol content of 0.150 percent or greater.
N-DEx was designed to search, link, analyze, and share criminal justice information including arrest and incident reports, incarceration data, and probation data nationwide.
"Anything (agencies) put in it will be available nationally," he said, but the data gold mine will depend on how each jurisdiction or state collects the data and what they want to report.
N-DEx takes 360 data elements seen in incident reports today and puts them into a master form. Agencies can then search individual or multiple elements, said Kevin Reid, N-DEx program manager.
Participation by all states will be gradual, with the goal of having the nationwide system in place by 2010, Bush said.
Submitting and receiving information from N-DEx is voluntary, Bush said, but the FBI is convinced that such voluntary programs will work, citing NCIC and a fingerprint database.
Bush said he can’t imagine agencies not using N-DEx once they start to see the benefits.
Oregon was one of the first states to test N-DEx, said Oregon State Police Maj. Chris Brown.
"It works very well and is very robust," Brown said.