Population, business growth leading to more DWI cases

The number of drivers getting behind the wheel and driving while drunk have decreased in Montgomery County over the past year, but in The Woodlands the issue is occurring more often, according to law enforcement reports.

The Woodlands Township Law Enforcement Services report shows that the number of officers responding to DWIs in 2014 in The Woodlands was 195, up from 157 in 2013. The township report only shows calls for suspected DWIs, rather than arrests.

"In general, an increase in DWIs in any area happens when the population is just growing," said Josh Pullen, Texas Department of Public Safety sergeant.

Pullen said there is typically an increase in crimes in general when dealing with an increase in businesses and population.

Senior Sgt. Jason Moore of the Montgomery County sheriff's office agreed with Pullen and said anytime there is growth in a community, crimes such as DWIs tend to increase. However, Moore said there has also been an increase in law enforcement personnel who are able to make more arrests that could not have been made before.

"While you see an increase in these crimes, you also see an increase in personnel," Moore said. "It's a fine balance. We've added eight more deputies across the district this past year."

Moore said that with the added deputies and the extra patrols that are coordinated by the Montgomery County District Attorney's Office, more DWI occurrences are found, and more arrests can be made.

DWI legalities

Morgan Bourque, a criminal defense attorney in The Woodlands, said since he has been involved with handling DWI cases in the past five to seven years, he has noticed an increase in cases.

"I've been around DWIs and the criminal world since I've been licensed," Bourque said. "In my experience I perceive there's been an increase. However, the tests that are given when you get pulled over are hard to pass—there's been flaws in the system."

Deputy Cantu from the Montgomery County sheriff's office, who declined to provide his first name, said while there could be efforts made to improve the DWI testing process, law enforcement is doing the best it can.

"You can always make a better system," he said. "But we do what we can with what we have. There has been growth in The Woodlands, more businesses opening up and we've seen more alcohol [consumption]."

Bourque said there are three field sobriety tests that a police officer administers after pulling someone over. Those include a horizontal gaze test, a walk-and-turn test and a one-legged stand. On each test, the officer looks for certain indicators of intoxication.

If proof of intoxication is found, then an arrest can be made, Bourque said.

"DWIs happen because people drink more than they should, or they'll drink but they won't be intoxicated," Bourque said. "If an officer stops you and smells alcohol, it's not seen in the best light. But the tests are hard to pass even [for] a sober person—you don't know what clues they're looking for."

"A lot of times [the test involves] just following instructions, and it's going to be very difficult for an intoxicated person to concentrate," Cantu said. "When they're told to walk heel-to-toe, they'll take one or two steps and say they're done."

Montgomery County Assistant District Attorney Tyler Dunman said when officers make an arrest they give the suspect an opportunity for a blood or breath test, which are indicators of intoxication levels.

Cantu said the tests are designed to be challenging for a driver who is potentially intoxicated.

"If the person refuses the test, then our office is contacted, and we put out a search warrant to require a sample of their blood," Dunman said. "We submit [the search warrant] to a judge and, if probable cause is found, it is then signed, and a nurse takes the blood sample."

Dunman said the No Refusal program speeds up the process of law enforcement receiving blood draws when the program is implemented during holidays and weekends, and law enforcement is able to quickly receive test results from the individual.

The No Refusal program allows law enforcement to obtain search warrants for blood samples from someone suspected of drunk driving if the driver refuses to submit to sobriety tests.

"We have a judge, nurse and prosecutor centrally located and everyone does their parts," Dunman said. "[The No Refusal program] just expedites the process of getting the search warrant for the blood."

DWI fatalities

Although there are a variety of penalties for drunk driving and driving under the influence, some Montgomery County residents say judges should be tougher on offenders.

Margaret Smith lives in Montgomery and founded DWI Tracker after a drunk driver killed her 18-year-old daughter, Meghann Smith, in 2008.

The volunteer-based organization has about 45–50 active members who work with law enforcement throughout Montgomery County by driving specially marked vehicles installed with a camera to help catch drunk drivers. Volunteers also act as speakers to spread the word about DWIs.

"Judges need to be harder, even if it's someone's first [offense]," Smith said. "When I see offenders, I'll see some with tears in their eyes and some who don't even care. It's just how our society is, and it won't change until it hits another family."

Smith said she believes over-serving at bars and people not taking responsibility for their actions are what cause DWIs and the reasons for the rise in accidents and arrests.

"People will say they are [sober] and that they can drive and then our loved ones are traveling on the roadways," she said. "People don't think and take action. I also think there's a lot of over-serving in bars going on. I'm not saying they are all that way, but many won't stop serving if it's money on their plate."

DWI solutions

The Montgomery County Bar Owners Alliance was formed in 2012 after there were allegations of overserving at bars, said Chip Jackson , one of its founders.

"Other bar owners and myself founded the organization to let the community know that it's not okay to drink and drive," said Jackson, who owns Tewbeleux's Sports Bar & Grill in Spring. "While we can't control what people do, we can promote responsible drinking."

The organization started its campaign with about a dozen bars involved, some of which include Exit 73, The Goose's Acre and Rookie's Sports Bar and Grill.

The group enacted a designated driver program, in which designated drivers get a wristband at bars and get free food and nonalcoholic drinks. The group also partnered with taxi companies and bus services to get people home safely.

Jackson said that since 2012 there have been changes in the program and some establishments are no longer involved, but some local programs still exist, like the designated driver program at Tewbeleux's.

"The whole idea is for people to go out and have a fun, responsible time so they get home safe and come back again," Jackson said. "The last thing we want is for people to get hurt or hurt others. And I do think law enforcement has stepped up its effort to catch drunk drivers."

Moore said that as long as the county and The Woodlands Township keep recognizing the need for law enforcement, DWIs can continue to be processed by officers.

"The best way to stop DWIs is to keep up the enforcement," Moore said. "If the county and township recognize the need for manpower then this will allow officers to look out for DWI drivers."

Pullen said police officers in The Woodlands have not stopped their efforts to decrease DWIs and other law enforcement agencies have shown support.

"We're doing the best we can," he said. "The [district attorney] has been excellent, and the courts have assisted as well. We just want to send a message of letting people know [drunk driving] is not worth it."