Nearly all drunken drivers who caused crashes on Maryland’s troubled Indian Head Highway in Prince George’s County avoided jail sentences over the past three years, according to an investigation by the News4 I-Team.
A review of more than 40 DUI crashes on the highway between January 2016 and December 2018 shows most drivers were spared from serving time behind bars, despite causing injuries in many cases and regardless of whether they had prior DUI arrests.
The I-Team reviewed police reports and court filings from all of the dozens of DUI car accidents on Indian Head Highway (State Route 210) over the three-year span. The review shows most drivers charged in Prince George’s County secured probation before judgment in their cases or pleaded guilty to a lesser charge than DUI, helping those drivers avoid jail sentences and reducing a blemish on their driving and criminal records.
The I-Team found as few as five of the 44 people charged with driving under the influence of alcohol served jail time after the close of their cases. In those five cases, a judge reduced each of the jail terms to a matter of days. Those cases also included other serious charges, including drugs or resisting arrest.
A smaller sample of cases reviewed by the I-Team, from spring 2017, shows tougher sentences for DUI cases along the Charles County stretch of Indian Head Highway. All five drivers charged with DUI on the highway in Charles County were sentenced to jail time or supervised release. According to publicly available court records, none of those charged in Prince George’s County are shown to have served sentences of jail time or supervised release during that span.
Safety advocates said the I-Team’s findings indicate the Prince George’s County judicial system allows more lenient punishments for drunken driving. They said the findings also run counter to state and county efforts to improve safety on Indian Head Highway, which has a string of fatal accidents in the past year.
“It’s not acceptable and it will not be acceptable under my administration,” State’s Attorney Aisha Braveboy said. “This is a new day in Prince George’s County.”
Braveboy said prosecutors have long sought jail time for DUI in the county but have failed to secure jail sentences in a circuit court system that has been referred to as a “rocket docket” in which DUI cases moves speedily.
“I think the state’s attorney’s office did a really good job in bringing forward these cases but I think the justice system did not take these (DUI) cases very seriously,” Braveboy said.
Braveboy and several legal analysts in the county told the I-Team the system for adjudicating in Prince George’s County was unique between 2016 and 2018. Most of the cases were managed by a single judge, who used a speedier system in which outcomes were predictable and based on written guidelines. Braveboy said the system allowed drunken drivers and defense attorneys to easily navigate their cases to avoid jail time.
In a statement to News4, the state court system acknowledged Prince George’s County courts had for years used a “unique” system for adjudicating DUI/DWI cases, overseen primarily by a single judge. Several legal analysts and Braveboy said the system has offered predictable outcomes for defendants and was used to speed cases to completion. The Maryland court system said Prince George’s County courts recently ceased using the system. A spokeswoman for the state court system said the judge who’d recently overseen many DUI cases has left the bench for unrelated reasons. She said any of 24 circuit court judges in the county can now oversee DUI cases.
“We’re seeing lots of DUI case dismissals in Prince George’s County, and that’s really concerning to us,” said Lisa Spicknall, director of the Maryland chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
In February, county leaders announced new initiatives to improve safety on Indian Head Highway, including enhanced traffic enforcement and new speed cameras.
“We have to change the behavior of motorists who travel on this road,” County Executive Angela Alsobrooks said.
A suspected drunken driver is accused of crashing into a family’s car on the highway in December. Three children riding in the family car died. Their mother suffered severe injuries.
Another pair of fatal accidents in February increased scrutiny of the highway, which has long been dogged by a reputation of high speeds and recklessness. Seven drivers died on the highway in 2017, and it’s called “one of the most dangerous roadways in Washington” by the AAA motorist group.
Cynthia Jones, a Fort Washington resident who lives just minutes from Indian Head Highway, said she avoids driving on the highway when possible. Her sister was hit and killed by a drunken driver on Indian Head Highway in 2000.
“It was a heartbreak,” Jones said. “It was gut wrenching.”
She said public officials have long known of driving dangers on the highway and must take steps to reduce incidents of drunken driving and speeding.
“It’s just a disaster,” she said. “It’s a disaster in waiting for anyone who drives on Route 210. A lot of people do avoid it.”
Reported by Scott MacFarlane, produbed by Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited Jeff Piper.