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You Can’t Shame People Out of Driving Drunk

A new "Wall of Shame" policy in Long Island makes one ask: are our drunk driving laws so ineffective that we have to resort to humilation as punishment and deterrent?

by
Michele Catalano

Bio

June 4, 2008 - 11:34 am

In a Memorial Day weekend crackdown, 109 drivers were pulled over and arrested for drunk driving in Nassau County, Long Island.

Of the 109 arrested, 81 were charged with driving while intoxicated and the rest were charged with driving while impaired.

What all of them had in common: their faces would soon be plastered all over the wall of the county offices, as well as in the local media.

The county’s new Wall of Shame was unveiled two days after those arrests by County Supervisor Tom Suozzi. The Wall was composed of a vast array of mugshots from those Memorial Day arrests in a county building. Suozzi stood proudly in front of those photos as the invited media listened to the details of his new plan, including a request from the supervisor for the media to post the photos and personal information of the arrestees. The media complied. By the next day, all 109 of those mugshots were posted on Newsday.com.

Those arrested began receiving phone calls from friends and relatives. One man said he lost his job as a mechanic after his info was posted for all to see.

One can’t help but ask: are our drunk driving laws so ineffective that we have to resort to shame as punishment and a deterrent?

Certainly, I am against drunk driving. Is there anyone who actually advocates driving while drunk? Sometimes I wonder if our laws are harsh enough for these infractions. After all, those who choose to drink and drive choose to put the lives of everyone on the road with them at risk. In 2006 (in the U.S.), there were 13,470 fatalities in crashes involving an alcohol-impaired driver (BAC of .08 or higher) – 32 percent of total traffic fatalities for the year. That’s almost 14,000 people who would be alive today if it were not for the selfishness of someone who got behind the wheel after drinking alcohol.

While you can suspend licenses and impound vehicles and hand out stiff fines and lengthy jail terms, it still seems like we are in a never ending battle against drunk drivers.

Perhaps the county sees the Wall of Shame as a last resort. Hit them where it hurts; their pride.

There have been other cities where such a practice was tried:

* A newspaper in Kentucky posted mugshots of DUI offenders, but stopped the practice because the publisher didn’t believe posting the pictures served as a deterrent.

* In Phoenix, mugshots of drunk driving law offenders were posted on billboards.

* In Tennessee, first time DUI offenders must pick up trash on the side of the road wearing bright orange jackets with the words “I AM A DRUNK DRIVER” on them.

* Ohio, Iowa, Minnesota and Oregon issue special license plates to DUI offenders; Washington State is trying to do the same.

The difference between the cited examples and the Nassau County Wall of Shame is that in the above cases, the drivers were all convicted of their crimes before their mugshots and personal information were made public.

Suozzi and the county may have very well overstepped their bounds by allowing these photos to be posted before anyone was convicted. Even if this practice is not legally suspect, it certainly is unethical. Yes, technically, all those people arrested are drunk drivers; they all blew above the legal limit on a breathalyzer test. But they are not convicted drunk drivers. They are not yet the legal definition of criminals; they are, for all intents and purposes, suspects. One wonders if the county is opening itself up to expensive, time consuming lawsuits.

Personally, I don’t think that humiliation is much of a deterrent in this case. Maybe a handful of those arrested – the occasional social drinkers – might think twice about getting behind the wheel after drinking again but, for the majority of drinkers, the threat of having your photo published in the paper is not something you take seriously once you’re drunk.

In fact, I’m sure that there are very few people who will even give the fear of public humiliation a first thought, let alone second, once they’ve started drinking. If Nassau County is trying to make an example of the 109 people arrested Memorial Day weekend in the hopes that it will reduce drunk driving, it’s clear they just don’t understand the power of alcohol. People under the influence of alcohol, especially enough to be over the legal driving limit, rarely think clearly or rationally enough to take pause and remember that getting behind the wheel may result in a portrait on the Wall of Shame.

Harsher laws, especially for first offenders, and better awareness and education programs are needed here, not public shaming.

Another thing to think about is the legality of allowing elected officials to add more punishment to a crime. If convicted, these people will serve the sentence imposed to them by the judge that hears their case. But Suozzi, and other town leaders who enact the same kind of humiliation tactics, are more or less taking it upon themselves to add to the punishment handed down by the judges.

The Wall of Shame mugshots are an extension of whatever fines or jail time you get for your infraction. Isn’t the public humiliation then part of the punishment? If so, shouldn’t that be part of the drunken driving statutes, or are town leaders allowed to determine on their own improvised Scarlet Letter punishments at will?

The first-time drunk-driving offenders among those arrested need education on drunk driving and alcohol abuse counseling in addition to whatever the judge sentences them to. Repeat offenders need severe consequences.

While public humiliation may feel like a satisfying form of punishment, the jury is still out as to whether it is truly a deterrent. The ambiguities of the morality and ethics of the Wall of Shame, not to mention its questionable payoff, should call the technique into question.

Michele Catalano lives, writes, and takes photographs on Long Island.
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