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Oxford and Starkville face increasing DUI numbers

Petre Thomas

 

According to local law enforcement officials, the number of arrests for driving under the influence of alcohol has increased in both Oxford and Starkville.

Oxford Police Chief Mike Martin stated that 296 DUI arrests have occurred so far in 2011, in contrast to 274 arrests in 2010, an 8 percent increase. 

Starkville Police Department Master Sergeant and DUI specialist Shawn Word said the number of arrests in Starkville were also slightly up, noting that 432 arrests took place in 2010 compared to more than 500 made in 2011.

One reason for the increase, Word said, is that police officers have received substantially more training when it comes to dealing with DUIs. 

However, according to Word, the primary goal is keeping people safe.

“It’s not about arrests,” he said. “I hope to stop someone from getting into a wreck and getting hurt or killed.”

There are several laws and penalties in place to discourage people from drinking and driving that carry significant consequences if broken.

According to Mississippi law, a first offense DUI can carry a $250-$1000 fine, 48 hours in jail, a 1-year drivers’ license suspension and taking a mandatory Alcohol Education Program. There are further costs such as jail-filing fees, bail, vehicle towing and the Alcohol Education Program.

Legal representation bears a further expense, which, according to Oxford-based attorney Dwight N. Ball, “depends on the experience of the lawyer and the complexity of the case.” 

According to Mississippi Insurance Commissioner and State Fire Marshall Mike Chaney, one’s insurance costs will also be affected.

“A DUI in the insurance world is a very serious matter,” Chaney said. “You can expect a minimum 30 percent-plus increase in your premium.”

Second and third offense DUI charges can hold more severe consequences, such as a felony charge, up to five years in jail and several thousand dollars in fines.

A DUI constitutes being over 0.08 percent blood alcohol content for persons over age 21 and 0.02 percent for those 21 and under.

However, one doesn’t have to be necessarily over the limit to be charged with a DUI. 

“Alcohol effects people differently,” Word said. “If you fail the field sobriety tests, you’re going to jail.”   

One area of controversy is the use of sobriety checkpoints or “roadblocks” by police to stop vehicles and determine whether the driver is operating under the influence of alcohol or other illicit substances.

It was argued in the U.S. Supreme Court that the roadblocks were unconstitutional in light of the Fourth Amendment. In order to pull someone over, the police must have at least a reasonable suspicion that someone has or was about to commit a crime, which would seem to conflict with police stopping someone at random at a checkpoint.

However, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the position that the checkpoints were constitutional in the 1990 case of Michigan Dept. of State Police v. Sitz. The Court held that properly-conducted DUI checkpoints were constitutionally-permissible because the states’ interests in reducing drunk driving outweighed any constitutional concerns that roadblocks may violate. 

According to Ole Miss law professor Thomas Clancy, this was the only time the U.S. Supreme Court assessed the constitutionality of DUI checkpoints and upheld their use under certain circumstances. 

“Since this time, DUI checkpoints have been allowed not because the person who is driving to the checkpoint is suspected of criminal activity, but because of the danger of DUIs, driving while intoxicated, has to society at large,” Clancy said.

Clancy stated that instead of looking for probable cause as to a specific individual, the Court set out criteria by which to measure the legality of checkpoints, such as limiting police discretion when setting up and using the checkpoints.

“For example, in Oxford, when the police set up a checkpoint now they typically will stop everybody at the checkpoint and have a brief inquiry of them to determine whether or not there are any signs of intoxication,” Clancy said. “If there are, now the police have probable cause to continue to hold the person and do the sobriety tests on that individual person.” 

Although they may pose an inconvenience to some citizens, law enforcement officials maintain that the checkpoints help keep roads safe.

“They help in catching those driving impaired and without a license or insurance,” Martin said. “Checkpoints also provide a deterrent for those who might drink and drive because it increases their chances of getting caught behind the wheel when they are impaired.”   

According to Word, more students are arrested for DUI charges than anybody else. In light of this, there are several education and outreach programs in place to help students become aware of and avoid the negative consequences of alcohol abuse.

The University of Mississippi Office of Health Promotion works in collaboration with the University Counseling Center and local law enforcement officials to make educational and prevention resources available for students.     

One program, Alcohol.edu, sponsored by the Office of Health Promotion since 2006, is an online course mandated for incoming freshmen and transfer students to assess their knowledge coming into college with regards to alcohol.

According to Erin Cromeans, assistant director of health promotions, Alcohol.edu can be used to test students’ knowledge about alcohol before entering college, and then to see if their experience in college, or the “college effect” has influenced their use and attitude towards alcohol. It also instructs students about blood alcohol levels, negative consequences of drinking and about protective behaviors.

However, there’s more to the program than just telling underage students not to drink.  

“It’s also teaching protective behaviors if you decide that you are going to break the law and drink,” Cromeans said. “We need to know that they are prepared and educated on what could happen if they decide to drink.”

Some students, like senior speech pathology major, Amanda Spencer, feel they could do without the hassle of the program.

“I kind of thought it was annoying,” she said. “I really didn’t think it was very helpful at all. It was stuff that we had already learned all our lives.”

There are also avenues for students to seek help if they are struggling with alcohol issues through the University Counseling Center.

According to Amy Fisher, substance abuse coordinator and staff counselor, there’s a problem when alcohol starts to cost you something.

“If the person goes ahead and chooses alcohol over what they’re losing, then that’s usually when we call it misuse or abuse,” Fisher said. 

Also, Fisher feels students shouldn’t be afraid to seek help if they feel they are struggling.

“There’s no judgment here,” she said. 

“Sometimes students are afraid we will shake our fingers here and that we are the alcohol police. We’re not.”