This new program lets Utah DUI offenders keep their driver licenses in exchange for sobriety

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sergeant Dustin Anthon administers breath tests as part of Weber County's 24/7 Sobriety Program in Ogden on Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019.

Ogden • Each day, for 365 days, Randon “Charlie” Parker started his mornings with a test that analyzed his breath.

On most days, he’d undergo five tests, to be exact, all before 7 a.m. By the time the day was over, he’d usually have been tested at least five more times.

Parker had been convicted of driving under the influence — for a second time — which meant he would lose his license for two years. But he instead enrolled in a pilot program in Weber County that allowed him to keep his driving privileges, with the caveat that he remain sober for an entire year.

Officials gave him two alcohol-detecting breath tests a day, 12 hours apart, at the jail in Ogden. He also had an interlock ignition system in his car, and it tested his breath on his way to the jail, again when he left, and so on, often eight times day.

If he were to fail any of the tests, he’d go to jail.

Parker was one of the first eight people in Utah’s 24/7 Sobriety Program, a sentencing option available for a handful of judges to use chiefly for repeat DUI offenders. Proponents see it as a win-win-win because it keeps the jail population down, doesn’t cost taxpayers much money because participants pay for the testing, and because it stops the typical DUI cycle of incarceration — offenders keep their jobs and can afford to pay the costs and fines because they’re able to keep driving.

(Photo courtesy of Weber County Sheriff's Office) Randon "Charlie" Parker, middle, poses with a certificate after becoming the first person to successfully complete Weber County's 24/7 Sobriety Program. The pilot program launched in 2018 and aims to reduce recidivism and fatal DUI crashes by requiring participants to stay sober in exchange for keeping their driving privileges.

In part because Parker and others succeeded, officials have opened the program to all courts in Weber County.

If all goes as planned with this year’s participants, Utah Highway Patrol Capt. Chris Simmons said he’ll pitch a statewide rollout. With that scope, Simmons said, law enforcement expects recidivism rates to drop, as well as alcohol-related fatal car crashes.

And to make sure the program works, the University of Utah School of Social Work, in conjunction with the Utah Criminal Justice Center, will track the progress of people in the pilot program.

Parker conceded it was a “pain in the ass” to go to the rigidly scheduled tests, which he could only take at the Kiesel jail facility in Ogden. But compared to the alternative, he’d choose to be a guinea pig in the new program every time, he said.

“[When you lose your license], you lose your job. You lose, you know, your way of paying for all your fines and classes and everything. I mean, it just escalates,” he said. “ ... I can’t even compare what it would have been like with a two-year loss of driving privilege.”

He added: “I would only be halfway through the whole [lost license] deal if this 24/7 program hadn’t been available.”

Instead, he was the first person to complete the program with no violations. Now, he said, he has a better job, a better relationship with the important people in his life and a better understanding of how to consume alcohol responsibly.

How 24/7 Sobriety works

DUI charges in Utah have been trending downward since fiscal year 2014, going from 9,711 to 9,149 in FY18, according to data The Salt Lake Tribune obtained through an open records request.

Second DUI offenses, too, are generally decreasing, though data from FY19 shows that charges in some more rural court districts have already outpaced the previous fiscal year.

Lawmakers approved the pilot hoping to reduce fatalities and the number of repeat alcohol and drug offenders, Simmons said.

It costs $30 to enroll in the program, and participants pay $2 per breath test. At two tests a day for an entire year, the program can end up costing around $1,500 for those tests alone.

Since it launched in July 2018, Weber County officials have administered more than 14,850 sobriety tests, and have recorded only 26 failed tests. A total of 48 people have enrolled; 32 are still being tested regularly and eight have completed the program.

Of the remaining eight participants, three flunked out (one person got a third DUI), and five were mistakenly entered and removed.

Simmons said he believes the program works because it recognizes that people make mistakes and allows them to make amends while maintaining their regular lives — just without drugs or alcohol.

It focuses on second-time offenders to try to help them change before they receive a third DUI, which is a felony in Utah.

“It would be foolish for us to say that every first-time DUI offender is going to be a chronic alcoholic or a chronic abuser,” Simmons said. “We are specifically targeting the second-time offenders because they’ve proven that it’s more than just a mistake, and so that’s the opportunity for us to step in and intervene.”

Those with one DUI can join a modified version of the program, however, that requires sobriety for six months.

If someone in the program does slip up, there are immediate consequences. The first time they fail a test, they’re booked into jail for eight hours. The next time it happens, they’re locked up for 16 hours. The next time, it’s an entire day.

After a fourth violation, a participant would have to appear before a judge to be resentenced, and they would likely be kicked out of the program.

At that point, the required two-year driver license suspension begins. They are not given credit for time served in the sobriety program.

Simmons said that outcome is part of what holds participants accountable. “All that time and energy that you put into it” is basically for naught at that point, he said.

Weber County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Phillip Reese said the jail offers participants brochures for local Alcoholics Anonymous groups and other resources to help them stay sober. He said many choose to attend AA meetings.

Past, present and future

South Dakota started the 24/7 Sobriety Program in February 2005. Researchers from the RAND Drug Policy Research Center looked at outcomes for the more than 17,000 residents who participated between 2005 and 2010, and found a 12% reduction in repeat DUI arrests.

South Dakota officials have opened it up to first-time DUI offenders and people arrested or convicted for other offenses, like assault, domestic violence, or child abuse and neglect, if alcohol was found to have played a role. And other nearby states, such as Wyoming and Montana, have started their own 24/7 Sobriety Programs.

Campbell County Sheriff’s Lt. Kevin Theis runs Wyoming’s largest program, which just added a drug patch testing option for those arrested after driving under the influence of drugs. So far, 385 people have gone through the county’s program, and Theis said deputies are starting to see a decrease in repeat alcohol and drug-related offenses.

On a recent Thursday evening at the old Weber County jail in Ogden, program participants started pulling into the parking lot about 6:30 p.m. They filed into the jail lobby, a white cinder block room with teal trim, and waited outside a door with an inset walk-up window.

“How are ya?” Weber County Sgt. Dustin Anthon asked one woman, chatting as he typed on an out-of-sight computer. Anthon handed the woman a breath test. She blew into it. A few seconds later, it was over.

Next up.

He repeated the process over and over, and in less than 30 minutes, Anthon had administered tests to about half of the participants in Weber County’s program. The rest will filter in that evening before 8:30 p.m.

They’ll start the process over at 6:30 a.m. the next day.

In the future, Simmons said, officials could make arrangements for participants to be tested in other counties, to allow for travel during the year. They may also consider offering a bracelet that can detect drugs and alcohol, to allow travel out of state, Simmons said.

Sobriety and a better life

Reflecting on the last year, Parker said his life has taken a “huge turn” for the better.

When the program started, he was working at a golf course, a job that paid the bills but wasn’t fulfilling, he said. Now, he’s part of a contracting crew that fills firefighting aircraft with fire retardant. He loves the work, and sees himself as a public servant.

And his personal relationships are better, too.

“The program taught me to just go through it. Get it done. It’s one year. You partied for 20 plus years. What’s one year of sobriety to make it, and get clearheaded?” he said. “I’ve had a much better relationship with my sweetheart. I’ve got a much better relationship with the kids. It has been one of the most positive things in my life.”

Of course, he wishes he could have learned that lesson on his own, without getting arrested, he said. But now, he added, he’s ready to build on those lessons and keep making progress.