Six months ago, anti-drunken driving organizations began monitoring Northern Virginia's courtrooms to determine whether the laws they helped escort through last year's General Assembly to passage are having any impact on the problem.
"Frankly," said Lacy Saunders, a male member of the vocal grass-roots group called Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD), "we don't like what we see."
What angers Saunders are such things as the results of a random sampling by his group of 403 drunken driving cases handled by Fairfax County lower courts in October and November. He said the survey showed that judges suspended jail sentences in 82 percent of the cases and suspended fines in 70 percent of the cases.
"The courts are not using the law to the full extent," said Saunders. "The drunk drivers still experience little more than an inconvenience."
It is an assessment that Fairfax County Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan echoes to some extent. He said that although a greater number of drunk drivers are being convicted under the new Virginia drunken driving law in Fairfax County, fewer of them are losing their drivers' licenses than did before.
For their part, however, judges argue they are not being lenient in drunken driving cases.They say they are complying with state laws and imposing more convictions, a factor that can drastically affect the offender through higher insurance costs and mandatory jail sentences for subsequent convictions.
In response to complaints that the level of fines imposed is inadequate, one judge, who asked not to be identified, noted that the fee for the mandatory Alcohol Safety Action Program (ASAP) program ordered for drunken driving offenders has been raised from $200 to $250 under the new law, increasing financial burdens on offenders whether or not they are given additional fines.
In addition, the ASAP program, which is the state-mandated treatment and training program for drunken driving offenders, usually takes four to five months to complete, program officials say.
The effort to set up legal roadblocks against drunk drivers has emerged as one of the hottest grass-roots political issues in recent years. In response to pressures from groups such as MADD, officials locally and nationally have turned some political attention to the issue.
Last week, for instance, Virginia Gov. Charles S. Robb's Task Force to Combat Drunk Driving conducted hearings in Fairfax County as part of its statewide circult of hearings intended to give citizens an opportunity to present their views on the problems of drunken driving. The group will report its findings to the governor in June -- too late for any recommendations to be made to this year's General Assembly, however.
Another task force appointed by the Fairfax Board of Supervisors for the same purposes turned over its report to that governing body Monday.
Those public hearings have prompted similar demands by citizens who demand tougher laws, tougher enforcement and tougher sentences.
One such demand voiced last week was for raising the drinking age to 21. Some states that already have raised the drinking age report that it has contributed to reducing the number of drunken driving-related fatalities on their highways.
The attempt to change the law is not a shoo-in in Virginia, however.
One state task force member, Democratic State Sen. Dudley J. Emick Jr., from Fincastle, said: "It's hard to tell a law-abiding 19-year-old that they must suffer because of a few people."
Some of the strongest testimony at the local hearings came from Saunders, who brought his statistical ammunition to the committee. Although Saunders said the court-watchers' statistics were not a complete assessment of all activity in the Fairfax General District Court, he said it represented a sampling of court activity.
According to Saunders, the survey showed:
* Fines were ordered in about half of the cases, but about 70 percent of all fines were suspended. Of $47,400 in fines ordered, $33,000 was suspended. The average fine paid was $67.
* Jail sentences were imposed in about one-fourth of the cases. Only about 18 percent of those sentenced actually served jail terms, however, and all those were imposed under a state law that requires a two-day mandatory sentence for two-time offenders.
In Fairfax County, where police arrests for drunken driving have been among the highest in the metropolitan area for the past several years, police officials say they welcome the increased public scrutiny the issue has created.
But Fairfax Police Chief Carroll D. Buracker said he doesn't agree that the courts have done a poor job of carrying out the demands of the new laws.
"Since the law changed in July, I've been impressed with the decisions made by the courts," he said. "Before [the new laws], you just saw examples of people going through the Alcohol Safety Action Program again and again."
Under old state laws, drivers could have drunken driving charges reduced to reckless driving after they completed the ASAP program.