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Contributed Photos by Sullivan County Probation Officer Linda Lukoff

Sullivan County Stop-DWI Supervisor Steven D. Pitcher demonstrates the use of the ignition interlock system. The device he’s blowing into measures the user’s blood alcohol concentration, and if it’s above .025 percent, the car can’t be started.

Plan to drink and drive? One big hassle awaits

By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO — December 28, 2010 — New York State has given drivers a new reason to think before they have a drink and get behind the wheel.
In August, the state implemented the final aspect of Leandra’s Law, requiring anyone convicted of DWI to install an ignition interlock device in their car and be sentenced to either probation or a conditional discharge.
That’s for first-time or repeat offenders – no exceptions.
That’s also at their own expense – and it means there’ll be no driving if there’s even a hint of alcohol on the operator’s breath.
“We get the results approximately five minutes after the person blows into the device,” says Sullivan County Probation Supervisor Steven Pitcher, pointing to a photo of a DWI offender using one of the units.
The image is one of several taken during the interlock’s operation, to verify that the person submitting the breath test is the right one and not a friend or relative.
Pitcher said people try to circumvent the system; however, with the new Class III devices – which include a camera, GPS, and real-time data reporting – it has become extremely difficult.
“It’s an excellent tool at keeping people honest,” affirms Probation Director Jeff Mulinelli.
The county’s Probation Department has been using these devices for three years, but it’s only in the past year that the technology has caught up with their needs, thanks to a wireless satellite connection.
In other words, every time a DWI offender’s car is started (or attempted to be started), driven, stopped and turned off, county authorities know about it.
“It’s in the car for a minimum of six months,” explains Pitcher, who has handled DWI probationers for 21 of his 24 years with the county.
Probation supervises about 200 DWI offenders currently, though only 10 of the devices are presently deployed, since many of the offenders committed their crimes before interlocks were mandated.
The District Attorney’s Office oversees the deployment of another 56 for mostly first-time offenders on conditional discharges.
Currently the devices are required for DWI offenders only – those convicted of driving with a BAC (blood alcohol concentration) higher than .08 percent. But a judge can mandate their use for DWAI offenders, as well – those who’ve been convicted of driving with a BAC higher than .05 percent.
That’s an expensive proposition – for the offender, not the county.
Installation of the ignition interlock device (done at a local garage) costs approximately $125, with a monthly $87.50 fee thereafter. De-installation costs approximately $40, and if the machine locks out a user due to tampering, there’s a $70 charge to reset it.
Those charges are on top of the various fees and fines DWI offenders pay to Probation, the courts, their attorneys, and the Dept. of Motor Vehicles.
Thus even a first-time offender is easily looking at $4,000-$5,000 out of their own pocket within six months to a year.
The only cost to Sullivan County taxpayers results from the monitoring duties performed by personnel in the Probation Dept. and District Attorney’s Office – four in the former, two in the latter.
The savings in time spent tracking down DWI offenders’ driving activities the old-fashioned way means it’s basically a wash.
But it’s racked up major points with county officials.
“I see them as a significant deterrent,” says DA Jim Farrell.
Though final figures for 2010 aren’t yet tabulated, he notes that the year-to-date number of DWI offenses is about in line with 2009’s – close to 500 total.
Considering the hassle and embarrassment of having an interlock in one’s car, Farrell seems fairly certain future years will see decreases.
“It’s a device that will save lives, and anything that does that has my support,” he says.

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