DUI Complications: The Trouble With Probation and a Miscarriage of Justice

Today’s New York Times takes a fairly in-depth look at probation in the U.S. criminal justice system. Most defendants who plead guilty to misdemeanors, like first time DUIs, in Illinois will receive some sort of probation and in some of these cases the defendants find themselves in legal trouble again and again despite not breaking any additional laws.

In Probation May Sound Light, but the Punishments Can Land Hard, the Times looks at the case of Donyelle Hall, and African American mother living in the Baltimore area and arrested for DUI on Christmas 2013. Initially, she was stopped for speeding, failed a breathalyzer and was charged with drunk driving.

“(A)against her better judgment” because police accounts indicated that Hall was uncooperative, the judge accepted her guilty plea and sentenced her to a probations program for 12 months. From a DUI attorney perspective, it all seemed pretty routine. However,

(O)ver the next 18 months, Mrs. Hall would find herself in trouble again and again, though she committed no new crimes. She spent countless hours attending court and lost thousands of dollars in fees, legal costs and wages, as well as two jobs. The judge handling her case imposed conditions far harsher than the norm, then repeatedly called Mrs. Hall into court for violations like failing to ask permission before moving to a different unit in her apartment complex.

Ultimately Mrs. Hall spent more than a month in jail because she could not afford another $2,500 to bail herself out.

Before delving into the systemic problems illustrated by Hall’s odyssey through the criminal justice system it’s worthwhile to look at an interesting aspect of Hall;s DUI arrest. Hall is five feet tall. Since shorter people have less lung capacity than average people the breathalyzer test – which requires extremely deep breathing – can be more difficult and less accurate. On her first three attempts to blow, she failed to produce the minimum blow capacity to render a reading. ON her fourth attempt, Hall registered a .09 which is .02 over the Maryland legal limit.

For a woman of Hall’s weight, the difference was likely a single glass of wine during a four hour period. 

Hall’s case illustrates the problems of inappropriate probation and unusually strict rules. Hall didn’t really need to be on probation but it was undoubtedly a way to make money for the jurisdiction on fines and other court costs. Most first time DUI offenders in Maryland are released on their own recognizance. However, Hall was required to post $2k of the $25k which a bondsmen financed with her for several months.

After sentencing and related court costs, Hall’s DUI would cost her $385 dollars a month.

The money was a problem but the arbitrary conditions of probations were the real bogeyman. “Because probation is like a contract in which the defendant agrees to meet certain conditions to avoid incarceration, judges may impost lawful, rational and non-arbitrary conditions that intrude on the probationers freedom, like requiring drug treatment.”