Winnipeg Free Press - ONLINE EDITION
Naming suspected drunk drivers
Winnipeg police have started releasing the names of all accused drunk drivers arrested during this holiday season, hoping the risk of public ridicule and scorn might force some people to think twice before they get behind the wheel.I think it's a great idea.Unfortunately, it's not being very well received by local media as several outlets - including my employer, the Free Press - have chosen not to publish or broadcast the names. (The public can still find them on the Winnipeg police website by clicking HERE
)There are two main reasons for this policy "boycott", as I understand. Included are my own thoughts on these points.*****POINT 1 - A person is innocent until proven guilty and naming them after simply being charged - but not convicted - could compromise that.
Here's where this one breaks down with me.Media outlets name accused persons every day in this city. Murder suspects, armed robbery, assaults, auto thefts - we see their names in the papers and on television all the time. And yet we don't usually hear people suggesting we've stamped them as "Guilty" without first having a fair hearing.So why should the offence of drunk driving be any different? Especially if you buy the argument that every drunk driver on the road is a potential killer, and it's often only dumb luck that prevents a tragedy.Actually, I'll take that a step further. The crime of impaired driving is one of those rare "black and white" offences that you could argue a person is pretty much guilty upon arrest. I mean, you either are or you aren't. Especially when a person refuses a breathalyzer, as so many people seem to do these days. That's a slam dunk - save for some defence lawyer finding a legal loophole to squeeze you through.So the chance of a wrongful arrest for drunk driving is virtually nil, especially compared to every other type of crime.The exception on naming accused criminals - at least where I work - is when a person is charged with sex-related offences including child pornography and rape.The main reason is the fact there is an increased stigma with being branded a molester or pedophile which is difficult, if not impossible, to erase should a person ultimately be found not guilty.The other has to do with the fact sex assault would have one of the highest rates of collapses cases, due to a combination of people being falsely accused, the usual he-said/she-said case and would-be victims and witnesses changing their stories or refusing to testify.Certainly there's a stigma attached with every crime. But with drunk driving, that's exactly what police WANT to accomplish here.Since nothing else seems to be working - increased enforcement, a non-stop educational campaign - why not try and scare people sober? Works for me.Here's one final example of why refusing to publish the names of suspected drunk drivers troubles me.Let's say Joe Smith is driving home from an office party, having had a few too many to drink. He doesn't notice the light has turned red, blows through it and smashes into an unsuspecting motorist, seriously injuring them. Or maybe even killing them.No media outlet in this city, including mine, would hesitate for a second to publish Joe Smith's name. We do it all the time. "Police have charged Joe Smith with impaired driving causing bodily harm/death" the story would read. And nothing would be said about it.So why should Joe Smith be protected from being identified if running that red light results in him just missing hitting that innocent motorist?Let me put it to you another way.If a man fires a bullet towards a crowd of people and misses, would the media name him? Of course. So why not a drunk driver, who is behind the wheel of a weapon that can be every bit as lethal?*****POINT 2 - Media outlets are not likely to follow all the people they would be naming through the court system, meaning their guilt - or perhaps eventual innocence - would never be reported on.
This one gives me greater pause. And there is certainly some validity to the argument.As I mentioned above, the success rate for convictions on people charged with impaired driving would be extremely high - perhaps more than any other crime out there.But that doesn't mean some people won't beat the charge.Maybe it turns out Joe Smith was actually having a seizure/reaction to medication/other health issue and really wasn't drunk after all. But that doesn't come out until trial, when doctors can be brought forward to testify on his behalf and other medical evidence presented.The reality is, there's no way the media will be able to follow-up on every person who is charged. There's just too much other stuff going on. So how do we get around the fact we might be naming someone who eventually turns out to be not guilty - and thus damaging their reputation in the process?The only answer I have for that is that we are already doing it. Speaking from nearly a decade of covering courts, I can tell you with complete honesty there's no way I cover the outcome of every person who is charged.The big ones, yes. Rarely would we miss a murder case. But the rest is a virtual crapshoot and has as much to do with what else is on our plate on a given day and how many other cases we're covering.In a perfect world, reporters would track every single arrest that appears in the paper/on tv or radio and then follow it through to the finish. But that's not the reality.So what to do? Perhaps Winnipeg police, as part of this campaign, would be able to monitor these cases and then update the media on the results. It wouldn't be a stretch, since police would be playing a key role anyways as the arresting officers would know exactly what is happening.Or, maybe this campaign should be modified and police agree to provide the names of every CONVICTED drunk driver?Yes, you'd lose the immediacy. But everyone would know their name is eventually going to come out if guilty. And that would still be a very strong deterrent.*****I've told you a bit about what I think. Now I want to hear from you.It's clear the public is divided on this one. Thursday's daily Free Press
poll asked whether police should be releasing the names of people charged. Of the 2,712 voters, 54 per cent said "No".What's really interesting to me is the fact the vast majority of drunk drivers are usually law-abiding citizens who made a very stupid error in judgment.You know that Bob from your office likely isn't going to go hold up a bank this evening - but he certainly might get behind the wheel after having a few too many.Maybe that's why this issue is so troubling to some, as I doubt we'd see the same results if the question was "Should Winnipeg police release the names of drug-addicted thugs who steal your car and rob your neighbourhood gas station?"Agree or disagree on the policy of releasing names? And what should media outlets be doing with them? Let's get a discussion going by posting your thoughts below.
One final thing - please don't drink and drive.www.mikeoncrime.com