Prison not enough to help drunk drivers

Senior prosecutor of the South District Prosecutor’s Office Toomas Liiva.

PHOTO: Tairo Lutter

Senior prosecutor of the South District Prosecutor’s Office Toomas Liiva who recently received a presidential honor for years of dedicated service says he had no good answer to the question of how the state could prevent traffic deaths five years ago. He knows today that barbed wire alone is not enough and admits that there is a long road ahead.

Your focus is on drunk drivers. Why is that?

There was a traffic accident in Tartu County in 2015. A drunk driver of just 23 years of age but already a repeat offender drove into a tree at great speed and killed themselves and three other young people. Just a few days after the incident and in the same place, a routine patrol pulled over, after a short chase, another drunk driver who had started their run in Tallinn and driven through half the country while intoxicated.

Heading criminal proceedings of more serious traffic crimes was added to the list of my duties a short time before that tragic accident. When I got myself up to speed, I learned that penal policy for containing drunk drivers was weak so as not to say toothless. The attitude in 2015 was that drunk driving was a phenomenon in itself. Studies portrayed it as a marginal problem and said it was far more likely for people to die in traffic as a result of speeding or people using mobile phones behind the wheel.

Three days after the crash that killed four people, I was giving a press conference when I was asked by a Postimees reporter what the state plans to do to avoid such tragic accidents in the future. I did not have a good answer at the time.

Between August 2015 and the spring of 2016, I asked for detention for 16 drunk drivers, with my colleagues putting in another 16 requests. Despite predictions by defense attorneys that the prosecution’s repressive ambitions would not fly, Tartu Circuit Court did not release a single offender to the best of my knowledge.

How many went to prison?

For more than a few months? Fewer than five. And there is an explanation here. Keeping a person in a correctional facility costs the state €1,900 a day. At the same times, prisons do not have an effective system for tackling addiction. It is doubtful whether such a system could be created and maintained in the conditions of existing medical resources. It is clear that a person isolated from society for a longer period of time deteriorates socially. We must also not forget that most of these drunk drivers have wives or partners and children.

We started looking for alternatives in the fall of 2016, to have drunk drivers address their alcohol abuse problem instead of isolating them from society. The Ministry of Justice launched a pilot project at the South District Prosecutor’s Office in the fall of 2016. Criminal proceedings were terminated for first offenders (for driving in a criminal state of intoxication) on the condition that they complete the National Institute for Health Development’s program “Kainem ja tervem Eesti” (More Sober and Healthier Estonia) for which they had to pay themselves. The program entailed visits to a psychiatry clinic and bringing to the prosecution two blood samples six months apart. The latter meant to prove the person had managed to limit their alcohol consumption.

It often proves ineffective, if only thinking back to the recent case in Saaremaa. How effective are those levers today, after the perpetrator is released from shock detention?

We amended punishments and made them tougher in 2015-2016. We have tried to maintain that policy in 2016-2020, with a punishment on the one hand and trying to get people to address their problem on the other. That said, I believe there is a long way to go before we can strike a perfect balance.

As we know better now, drivers in a criminal state of intoxication generally have what is called a dissocial personality disorder, meaning that they are people who cannot be helped with pills. What would help is a fast and effective message from the state that such behavior will not be tolerated. The prosecution has become mired in legal disputes regarding this type of crime as the state has painted itself into a corner with legislation.

The court has no way of effectively influencing a dissocial person who has driven drunk their whole life because their previous punishments are no longer valid in the eyes of the law. I can give dozens of examples of people whose drunk driving record goes back to the early 1990s but who have lived and/or worked abroad for a time and have not had contact with the Estonian police. They are completely innocent in the eyes of the law today because the prosecution cannot rely on archival criminal records data when asking for a punishment.

There was a time when drunk drivers were put in the pillory, their name put in the paper. Could that help today?

Perhaps there are people out there who could be deterred from driving this way, but it is likely being put in the pillory would not motivate a person to address their alcohol problem and think about whether they want to drive next time. For example, a person who works in another country and comes to Estonia to unwind over the weekend. The latter is done by consuming copious amounts of alcohol and getting behind the wheel. If such a person gets caught, the court’s position usually is that because they work in another country, they cannot be subjected to supervision of conduct. Does that seem sensible to you? It doesn’t make sense to me, because they were caught in a criminal state of intoxication that cannot be achieved by drinking a few beers after going to the sauna.

Politicians have launched a kind of competition of who can come up with the toughest punishment for drunk driving. What is your opinion?

The truth is somewhere in the middle. On the one hand, we need to deter dissocial behavior with the threat of punishment. On the other, we need to figure out how to make sure a person with a dissocial personality disorder caught behind the wheel of a car wouldn’t find their way back there because the state left them the possibility to keep drinking.

Traffic psychologist Gunnar Meinhard has said we should fundamentally change our entire thinking. If a drunk driver gets caught, they’re punished. The state has to check up on them to make sure whether they’re better or not. The person is told they cannot drink, and an army of officials has to check up on them every now and then. They can refuse to let those officials in the door. It works the other way around in Germany. A person who has broken the rules, for example, by driving in a state of intoxication, needs to prove to the state they can be allowed to drive again.

They can pull themselves together for the blood test sample period but then fall back into the same old ruts?

Yes, and we do not have an effective solution here because we cannot keep monitoring them all their lives. The logic lies in hoping that the disorder isn’t as serious for first offenders and they understand why they cannot consume alcohol or why they should see a doctor.

How many of those who agree to the blood test period do the authorities see again?

I cannot give a precise answer to that. I am currently supervising a master’s thesis, and I hope I will be able to answer the question after a corresponding study is completed in spring. However, these are not people with an addiction disorder but a dissocial one.

Many drivers have been caught with a very low blood alcohol content and the idea to give up the zero-tolerance policy has been bounced around. What is your opinion?

Let us be clear here. The cases we’re talking about are not cases where the person has had a “couple of beers.” When we look at their files, we see that they started drinking on the previous day, and that they were drinking vodka and not beer. It is not a question of having a beer or a glass of wine. It takes time to achieve a criminal level of intoxication as far as driving is concerned.

Who is a drunk driver? Can we outline a type of person?

Talking about people caught behind the wheel in a criminal state of intoxication, they are people with a behavioral disorder whom doctors describe at least as alcohol abusers. That makes up around 80 percent of the cases I come into contact with. We need to treat the disorder. Not every alcoholic gets behind the wheel. A driver in a criminal state of intoxication is a mix of an alcoholic and a person with a behavioral disorder.

Should causing a fatal traffic accident while drunk be equated to manslaughter?

It is easy to debate legal theory sitting behind the desk here, while the loved ones of victims later have to read about it from the paper. It doesn’t matter to me whether a drunk driver who kills someone in traffic sits in prison for 12 or 15 years. It changes nothing.

Let me tell you about the first guy to use the blood lock system. We had told him he was looking at two years and three months inside. Because he had a partner and a job, I offered him an alternative. That he needs to bring us blood test samples for two years. The person has to pay €33 for every test out of their own pocket. He shook my hand and said if he cannot make it this time, he belongs in prison. He is still clean, and we’re rooting for him.

We give people a chance and if they fail, they go to prison. It is a personal choice.