WASHINGTON — Florida is among a handful of states looking at a Louisiana sheriff's technique to dramatically cut alcohol-related crashes
Following a shocking rash of such accidents in Lafourche Parish two years ago, Sheriff Craig Webre began using laws already on the books to impose a "no refusal" policy for suspected drunken drivers who declined breath tests. When someone refused to take a Breathalyzer, Webre's deputies sought prompt search warrants from judges to take blood samples and charge suspects if their blood-alcohol exceeded 0.08, the level where impairment is presumed by law in both Louisiana and Florida.
The number of people killed in alcohol-linked crashes in Lafourche Parish fell to 11 in 2009. Drunken driving arrests doubled. This year, five people died in such crashes in the parish.
"The statistics and the lives that have been saved cannot be refuted," Webre said.
Nearly 11,000 people were killed in alcohol-impaired crashes in the United States in 2009. Two-thirds of the deaths involved a driver with a blood-alcohol content higher than 0.08.
About one in four drunken driving suspects refuses to take breath tests, the Louisiana Transportation Department said, and law enforcement officials described the approach as a loophole commonly used to avoid prosecution.
"These aren't new laws or regulations," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. "They're efforts to streamline existing procedures while protecting due process to ensure that drunk drivers can't skirt the consequences of their actions." LaHood said the department would help states implement the policy in their departments.
New Hampshire has the highest refusal rate at 81 percent. About two in five refuse tests in Florida, Massachusetts, Louisiana and Ohio.
States using the approach report more guilty pleas, fewer trials and more convictions.
Warren Diepraam, an assistant district attorney in Montgomery County, Texas, said nearly half of the suspected drunken drivers refused breath tests before authorities there used the policy. Since starting "no refusal nights," Diepraam said only about 10 percent of people in his county reject being tested.
"We've now gone almost two years in my jurisdiction with no fatalities," Diepraam said.