October 4, 2010

ER Visits After DUI Accident Show Pattern Of Fewer Convictions

Data from a large California hospital shows that crashing a car while drunk and going straight to the emergency room does not earn someone a direct DUI conviction.

Among people admitted to the ER with blood alcohol levels above the legal limit, "the conviction rate is 59 percent," Dr. James F. Holmes of UC Davis School of Medicine in Sacramento told Reuters in an interview. "So there are 40 percent that are getting away with it."

Researchers looked at 241 drivers who had been admitted to their ER in 2007 with a blood alcohol level above 80 milligrams per deciliter, the state's legal limit.

The sickest patients were less likely to end up with a guilty sentence.

Records at the Department of Motor Vehicles showed that investigating police officers had a surprising impression of the drivers' sobriety:  11 percent of the drunk drivers were seen as having "not been drinking."

The ER blood samples showed an average alcohol level of 172 milligrams per deciliter.

"Those guys were over the legal limit, although the officers said they hadn't been drinking, and they didn't get a DUI," Holmes told the news agency.

"We're still missing patients that should be convicted," he said, adding that a few decades ago almost no one got convicted.

It is unclear why officers judged the way they did, although it was not necessarily out of negligence.

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) prevents doctors from giving out patient information to the police.

Holmes told Reuters that it often takes police a while to arrive at the hospital, where they wait around until the patient has been treated to test their alcohol level.

Sergeant Norm Leong of Sacramento Police Department told Reuters Health by e-mail that the police do not always draw blood.  Officers in California require a blood test even when a suspected drunk driver refuses.

However, they do so only if the patients show signs of intoxication.

Holmes told Reuters that some of his colleagues were hoping to change the system in order to make it easier to convict drunk drivers.

"There is a push among some of the injury prevention researchers at our institution to basically get a state law that would require the (emergency department) physician to report to the police that they have an intoxicated driver," he said.

However, some critics say that a law like this might scare injured drivers away from going to the hospital to get treated.

Holmes said that for now, "there is room for the police officers to improve as well.  That 11 percent, whether you think that is a lot or a little, can be fixed."


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