An individual who pays the fine on their DUI ticket and attends alcohol education classes hasn’t fulfilled all of his or her legal obligation. More often than not, judges in Wallowa County Circuit Court will mandate attendance at a Victim’s Impact Panel.
It’s a two hour-class that shows the ripple effect of drunk driving accidents. Wallowa County’s program has been in place for several years, much earlier than the 11-year tenure of district attorney Mona Williams, who leads the program.
Williams said the program is the result of the efforts of Mothers Against Drunk Driving organization that came into prominence in the ‘80s.
“The purpose of the program is for people who have been convicted or charged with DUI to understand their actions from the victim’s perspective,” Williams said.
The panel meets twice a year and is timed in rotation with Union County’s class so that offenders have an opportunity to participate every three months.
The panel rotates.
“A lot of times, we’ll have one or two victims of an actual crash or family members of an actual crash,” Williams said. She added that she has brought in victims or their families from other counties to participate.
The panel met on Jan. 18 with a new twist: Law enforcement officers George Kohlhepp of the Enterprise Police Department, Trooper Justin Goldsmith of the Oregon State Police and Deputy Kevin McQuead of the Wallowa County Sheriff’s Office participated as panel members.
“Thursday night, our focus wasn’t necessarily on the prime victim of a crash but on the ripple effect and how many victims there can be,” Williams said.
The officers and DA spent much of the evening reviewing local crashes that ended with either fatalities or very serious injuries. Photographs of the crashes were also used, which lent a somber atmosphere to the meeting. Particularly sobering were stories from the officers of finding friends or children they knew when responding to a crash scene. Officer Kohlhepp related how he lost a step-child to a drunken driver.
“Having them (the officers) there helped the audience see them as people,” Williams said. “They could also see how genuine the officers were in that they’re not out there just to issue tickets. They’re out there to keep people safe and keep people from dying.”
She added that while telling her story to DUI recipients, she also tells them to think about thanking the officers for saving their lives or the lives of others.
The DA said the panels don’t adhere to a formula because some people mandated to attend have been through the program before. Not all who attend are required to be there. For example, guests or a parent accompanying a juvenile who is mandated to attend for drug or alcohol purposes can come along. Neither parents or guests are charged the standard $15 attendance fee because the DAs office feels that support for offenders is important.
“We’re trying to encourage more people to attend,” Williams said. “If we can help to educate the support people then we’re doing something for the offenders and the community as well.” She added that some people in treatment groups at the Wallowa Valley Center for Wellness also attend the meetings.
Christie Houston, the county’s victim’s advocate, attends all the meetings in addition to being the coordinator for the program. She obtains speakers, checks the attendees in and files all the paperwork with the court as well as distributes fliers.
The county’s juvenile department does not send teens that may be traumatized by the graphic nature of some of the meetings, which can include graphic testimony from victims or vivid photos from accident scenes.
“It’s mainly driving-age people,” Williams said. “We try to be cognizant of how some of this information might impact people.”
While the program’s focus is to combat drunk driving, its mission has changed somewhat, according to Williams.
“We’re seeing so much more with the legalization of marijuana and other drug use,” she said. “The fact is, a person can be found guilty of DUI without having consumed alcohol.”
In fact, at the Jan. 18 session. law enforcement officers mentioned “double ought” arrests. In other words, DUI charges were filed against drivers who may blow zero on a breath test but still show signs of impairment.
Both Williams and Houston consider the program a success.
“I just read all the feedback from this last meeting,” Houston said. “This was one of our best ones, and I had a lot of great feedback from people.” She added that in a post-meeting survey, participants cited the ripple effect of their choices as the things they took away from the meeting.
Williams echoed those sentiments.
“Are all those people going to be so impacted that they’ll never drive under the influence again?” she asked. “It would be totally unrealistic. Whether its treatment court, Victim’s Impact Panel, whatever, if we make an impact on at least one person, then I consider it a success.”