Texas prides itself on being a “zero tolerance” state for young drinkers: Even a whiff of alcohol detected on anyone under 21 can result in a ticket. Minors can be cited for even being near a beer.

But reality isn’t Texas tough. Whether it is a police officer escorting a young drinker home or a prosecutor opting for lesser charges or dismissing the complaint altogether, young people who drink and drive often get a break.

According to juvenile court records, young drunken drivers aren’t much of a problem in Dallas County. Only 11 juveniles – under age 17 – were prosecuted for DWI from 1999 to 2009. That’s because, as in many jurisdictions, the majority of kids who drink and drive in Dallas end up with tickets – for lesser, Class C misdemeanors such as “minor DUI,” “minor in consumption” and “minor in possession” – which lead to fines, community service and license suspensions.

A Dallas Morning News analysis of Dallas’ municipal court found that about 850 kids under age 17 were ticketed for those offenses between 2004 and 2009. Hundreds more go through justice of the peace and other municipal courts in the county. And some are never ticketed at all.

It is “completely contrary to our ‘tough on DWI’ ” stance, says Clay Abbott, DWI resource prosecutor for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association.

The philosophy of juvenile justice is to give young offenders a second chance. But some experts say merely giving a young person a ticket with a few hours of community service and six hours of “alcohol awareness” lectures is a missed opportunity to stop the cycle of drinking and driving through treatment.

Some youthful offenders need more than a long lecture, they say. They need a substance abuse evaluation and, if they are deemed to have a problem, intensive treatment.

“We want to forgive and overlook youthful indiscretions,” Abbott said. But studies show that young drinkers are more likely to reoffend. “By not punishing the kids earlier, it becomes more serious as an adult problem.”

The cost is high: In November, 14-year-old Valeria Rodriguez was killed on Interstate 35W in Denton when an SUV in which she and two teenage boys were riding ran off the road. The boys, including her 14-year-old boyfriend, who police say was driving, were allegedly intoxicated. He now faces a charge of intoxication manslaughter.

Car accidents are the leading cause of death for people ages 15 to 20. And about a third of those fatalities are alcohol-related, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Tens of thousands more people of all ages are injured each year.

DWI deaths have declined in recent decades as awareness has increased, and the number of kids driving drunk has dipped since 1990. But experts say too many kids are drinking too early and too hard. The primary age of a first-time drinker decreased from 14.6 in 1997 to 13.9 in 2007, according to Dr. Jane Maxwell, senior research scientist at the University of Texas at Austin School of Social Work and co-author of a recent study, “Too young to drink but old enough to drive under the influence.” And 17 percent of high school seniors say they “have driven while drunk in the past year.”

Pete Schulte, a police officer turned defense attorney who specializes in DWI cases, said that when an underage drinker charged with DWI comes to his office, it’s usually not the youth’s first alcohol infraction. “The system is failing these [kids],” Schulte said. “We’re not treating the problem.”

View from the street
The battle against teen drinking and driving begins on the street. Law enforcement officers don’t take the problem lightly and have a plethora of laws to employ: A teen who’s had even a sip can be ticketed for consumption; a teen who’s in a car with an open container can be ticketed for possession even if the alcohol isn’t his; and a teen who’s driving with any amount of alcohol in his system can receive a minor DUI citation.

But in Dallas County, there’s really no facility set up to deal with the truly drunk teenager.

Minors can’t be thrown into the drunk tank with adults. And “Dallas County Juvenile Detention will not accept an intoxicated juvenile,” said Irving police Officer Stephen W. Burres III. “If I stop a 16-year-old kid who is drunker than Cooter Brown, they will not accept them.”

Randy Wadley, interim director of juvenile services for Dallas County, said the detention center is not set up to house intoxicated teens. Funding is limited, and the focus is on keeping violent teenagers off the streets. Drunk teens are rarely brought to the center, he said, and “if they were, it would be a challenge. You haven’t set up a program or place for those children.”

Another option is the hospital. An officer can take an inebriated minor to Parkland Memorial Hospital until a parent arrives – but that may take hours, removing the officer from the street.

“When they get to Parkland, they basically sit in the hallway with the kid because Parkland can’t treat them because they are a juvenile and you need the parent’s permission,” Burres said.

Most officers instead do what became standard practice in Irving a few years ago, Burres said. For children ages 10 to 16, Irving police issue a ticket for minor DUI, then release the youngster on the spot to a responsible adult.

Although it happens far less than in the past, officers from some jurisdictions may not issue a ticket at all but simply escort the youth home.

John Patton said he started drinking in junior high but was never arrested – until he killed someone.

‘Reeking of alcohol’
“There were times I should have gotten a DWI and I didn’t” when growing up in Dallas, he said. “One night, I hit a curb and obviously was drunk. And an officer came up and drove me home as I’m reeking of alcohol.”

Patton, now 31, said he didn’t drink every day, but when he did, he often drank too much. He didn’t worry; he was a good student athlete with plans to attend law school.

But when he was 22, after leaving a college party, he was driving through a quiet residential neighborhood when he slammed into another car, killing a 25-year-old man.

Patton spent two years in prison for intoxication manslaughter. He now works as a substance abuse counselor and also speaks to underage drinkers.

“The first DWI sentence should be harsh,” to force young people into treatment programs, Patton said, ” ’cause then it stops you in your tracks.”

No-shows in court
If a teenager does get ticketed for an alcohol infraction, it can be difficult to get him to court.

Dallas juvenile municipal Judge Cheryl Williams estimates that half to two-thirds of those due in her court for alcohol infractions fail to show up. If they fail to appear after a second notice, the case remains open.

But nothing happens.

“I don’t have any authority to hold a child,” she said. “That’s what we lack in municipal and JP courts.” In extreme cases, Williams can have the offender taken to a juvenile detention facility – where he is released to an adult because there is no place to keep him.

Consequences finally come into play when a no-show offender tries to obtain or renew a driver’s license. Then the Texas Department of Public Safety requires him to resolve the citation.

If the offender does appear in court, and requests a trial, the charge is almost always dismissed, because officers frequently don’t have hours to spend waiting for a low-level misdemeanor trial.

“I have never had a minor DUI or a minor-in-possession trial,” Williams said.

Records show that more than 1,500 alcohol-related cases in Dallas municipal court were dismissed between 2004 and 2009. The most common reason is “witness unavailable” or “insufficient evidence.”

City prosecutors did not return repeated calls for comment. If an offender does show up for court and pleads guilty, unlike in adult cases, a DUI offense is often “deferred” – meaning there is no final conviction if probation is successfully completed. More than 160 DUI cases were deferred in municipal court between 2004 and 2009, as were hundreds of minor-in-consumption and minor-in-possession cases. And again, unlike with adults, the case may be expunged completely from a person’s record after he or she turns 21.

In Dallas municipal court, some youthful offenders have had multiple infractions before reaching the legal drinking age of 21.

Some law enforcement officials say penalties for underage drinking and driving are too weak, particularly for first offenses.

“We all know they won’t care until they get a record,” said Lt. Dale Barnard of the Dallas police DWI Task Force. “If there’s no consequences, there’s no remorse.”

Longtime Dallas County Justice of the Peace Bob Whitney of Irving still believes giving young people a chance for a clean record is important. He says his primary focus is keeping offenders from picking up another offense. That, he said, is when a manageable situation can get out of hand.

“I try to make sure they know that if they only have one offense by their 21st birthday, they can get an expunction,” Whitney said.

But Darrell Fant, former director of public safety in Highland Park, said removing arrests and convictions from the record often causes more problems than it solves.

“The parents are convinced if … [their child gets] this conviction on their record, it will keep them out of Duke or Harvard or places like that,” he said. “They’re what I call these ‘rescuer parents’ that try to erase the consequence of their children’s choices.

“Then they wind up having a 40-year-old calling to say, ‘Mom and Dad, I’m in trouble again.’ ”
When a young person does plead guilty, local judges say, they do everything they can to prevent another offense. Minors are required to take an alcohol awareness class and perform some sort of alcohol-related community service, such as picking up beer cans by the side of the road.

Williams says her “biggest hammer” is the ability to suspend a driver’s license. But, the judge points out, not every offender has a license – many simply drive without it. “It’s effective only to those who care about the consequences,” she said.

If she’s aware of a previous alcohol-related offense, she may require the offender to spend time in a hospital emergency room or write his or her own obituary.

Repeat offenders are not unusual. The News’ analysis of municipal court data showed that some youths had multiple offenses before reaching legal drinking age. About 8 percent of those charged in the last five years have already reoffended.

But the chances of Williams knowing about a previous Class C arrest are slim – there is no statewide database for Class C misdemeanors.

Whitney always orders youthful offenders to attend a series of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. He said it’s not unusual for them to take a laissez-faire approach to the sessions initially, but the message eventually gets through.

He recalled a case 10 years ago in which he fined a teenager $300 and ordered eight hours of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

“I really didn’t think that I would get anything out of Alcoholic’s Anonomous [sic],” the young man later wrote to the judge. “I sure didn’t think I had a problem. After I listened to the first three speakers I started to see a pattern in all of them, that being their childhood and their younger drinking days sounded a lot like my life.”

The youngster went on to tell the judge that the sentence “was not actually a punishment at all but a great lesson,” and that he planned to continue attending AA even after his court-ordered sessions ended.

“If you can show them the way, get them in a program, you’re usually able to turn them around,” Whitney said.

In Williams’ court, every juvenile offender – and their parents – must meet with a social worker for an assessment. If Williams’ staff identifies a substance-abuse problem, she refers the child for treatment.

Treatment is key
Prosecutors, defense attorneys and experts say evaluation and treatment are the keys to slowing recidivism. Most reform advocates are not interested in harsher punishment for young drunken drivers; they’re interested in intense mandatory treatment to steer people away from lives of alcohol abuse.

Though not every teen who drinks needs treatment, underage drinking is an under-recognized problem, Maxwell said. And awareness classes are not enough.

“Alcohol education is great for the dumb kid who tried to buy liquor and got caught,” she said, but it “doesn’t do much for the offender with a substance-abuse problem.”

Full-blown alcohol treatment can be either inpatient or outpatient and may involve addiction education, behavioral therapy, coping skills education, participation in a 12-step program, group therapy and family counseling. Such programs may include several sessions a week over several months.

Affluent parents have access to a wide range of private treatment programs, but publicly funded treatment for low-income offenders is scarce. Maxwell’s study found that more than 11,000 minors were arrested for drunken driving in 2007, but only about a thousand entered treatment.

She’d like to see mandatory alcohol assessments before sentencing for any minor arrested for an alcohol infraction.

“What if we looked at DWI or DUI arrests as a screener for alcohol and drug problems?” Maxwell asked. “If everybody who got arrested got a decent assessment and the ones who are substance abusers got sent to treatment, I bet we’d really lower the rate of recidivism.”

One problem yet to be addressed, Maxwell said, is the growing incidence of driving under the influence of drugs other than alcohol. Experts say many kids seeking treatment suffer from a dual addiction to alcohol and another substance.

Patton wishes someone had forced him into evaluation or treatment before he got behind the wheel of that car and killed someone.

Young people “don’t really ever think about the future,” he said. “I try to get them just to visualize themselves at 25, 30, where they want to be, what they want to be doing. Then I just kind of ask them if what they’re doing right now is going to get them to where they want to be in life.”

“If you’re not ready to start a prison sentence tomorrow, and spend the rest of your life knowing you have injured or killed someone,” he said, “then don’t drink and drive.”

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