McHenry City Council pursues aggressive DUI policy

McHENRY – The city of McHenry is stepping up the prosecution of its driving under the influence cases, its police chief said.

The city has adopted a “nearly zero tolerance” policy on plea negotiations, which has meant a “substantial” increase in the number of hours that city-hired prosecutors have to devote to preparation and in court appearances, Police Chief John Jones said.

To cover the added hours, the McHenry City Council approved an additional $150,000 in legal contractual costs as a part of its fiscal 2014-15 budget.

The city also switched law firms, giving all the offenses that are tried in Woodstock – driving under the influence, as well as driving while license is revoked and suspended – to the law firm that currently handles the city’s administrative legal issues, City Administrator Derik Morefield said.

Zukowski, Rogers, Flood & McArdle have a larger staff and can handle the increased workload, Jones said. The attorney who handled the cases previously still will handle the city’s Branch 3 cases, which include citations such as speeding and improper lane use.

Both firms are paid $150 an hour for the cases, Morefield said.

Officers also are receiving advanced classes from Zukowski, Rogers, Flood & McArdle aimed at staying up-to-date on why some DUI prosecutions fail, he said.

The new policy, which was adopted in May 2013, emphasizes keeping DUI offenders off the streets as long as possible, Jones said.

“They’re not taking a stiff fine and pleading for some different offense,” he said. “They’re not just taking a guilty on a DUI and getting their license back.”

For many defense attorneys, the priority is getting the driver’s license of their client back as quickly as possible, which means that they’ll try to start the negotiation process even before a summary suspension hearing. A summary suspension is when a driver automatically loses their license starting 45 days after refusing to submit to a breathlyzer test or failing one.

The city is no longer doing that, and when a negotiated plea is agreed to, Jones or someone he designates has to sign off on it before it can be negotiated, Jones said. The city also is pursuing more felony charges when possible, going after drivers who have at least two prior DUI convictions or who were arrested while their license was suspended or revoked for a prior DUI.

The hope is that by taking a hard stance on DUI offenders, the city will see the number of offenders and, in particular, repeat offenders drop, which would eventually lessen the amount the city has to spend on legal costs, he said.

The city will evaluate the policy in two or so years to see whether it has been effective, Jones said.

The police department also is being more aggressive on obtaining grants, especially DUI-specific grants through the Illinois Department of Transportation, Jones said. Revenue from a $500 tow fee implemented in 2010 also helps offset costs.

The city’s contractual costs, which includes legal fees as well as postage, telephones, printing and equipment repair and maintenance handled under a contractual basis, also have been trending downward as city staff brought to bring down those costs, Morefield said.

Despite the policy taking effect in May 2013, the line item for contractual services were just $6,000 over budget as of early April, Morefield said.

Zukowski, Rogers, Flood & McArdle has billed 707.75 hours for a total of just under $110,000 as of mid-February, Jones said. The firm has handled over 900 case filings, which include any offenses charged in addition to driving under the influence or driving on a revoked or suspended license.

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