Backlog of DUI cases cleared using plea deals, but those won’t be around for much longer

Updated: May. 15, 2021 at 6:00 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - A plan to clear hundreds of DUI cases amid the COVID-19 court closures has resulted in 1,116 plea deals in Honolulu.

The offers were not allowed ahead of the pandemic, but when the courts shut down last year the backlog ballooned to 900.

“Most of these cases were from 2018, 2019 and 2020 which were pending trial as of January first of this year and that’s because there had been no trials for nine months last year,” said Florence Nakakuni, head of the misdemeanor division at the Honolulu Prosecutor’s office.

Add to that, more than 200 additional arrests this year.

In February, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and leaders at Mothers Against Drunk Driving finalized the plan for first time offenders.

So many defendants were interested, the program was only supposed to last one month but was extended through May.

“This was a unique circumstance,” said Kurt Kendro, of MADD.

“Unprecedented times calls for compromise on all parts and we thought this was the best compromise to make people accountable for their actions.”

Prosecutors have discretion.

Only those with no prior drunk driving arrests qualify, but if the arrest involved a crash, that driver would not be offered the deal. The blood alcohol content could be a factor too.

“This was a fair resolution of these cases given the circumstances and otherwise what would have happened probably is many of these cases would have been dismissed by the judges,” said Nakakuni.

The defendant has to pay fines, stay out of trouble for one year, and take driving and substance abuse classes to get the DUI wiped from their record.

They also cannot drive unless they get an interlock device.

If the person is arrested again for DUI during the one year probation period, the deal is revoked.

Nakakuni said that has not happened yet with the more than 1,000 defendants who took the offer.

Defense attorney Jonathan Burge had about 150 clients take the deal.

“It’s good. Free up the courts to concentrate on repeat offenders,” said Burge, who wants the state Legislature to make DUI plea deals permanent.

MADD opposes that and does not want to see it go past this month.

“MADD is very happy with the program,” Kendro said. “It’s ending at a good time, we’ve gotten assurances from the prosecutor’s office that it won’t be extended.”

While the court backlog has been cleared, the probation office and those running the driving and substance abuse classes are starting to get overwhelmed because so many defendants who took the deal are now trying to enroll.

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