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If you got arrested in Illinois for drunken driving 30 years ago, you had a good chance of getting away with it.

Not anymore.

The Pantagraph looked at five years of court records from 2000 to 2004 to see what happens in McLean County when people are arrested for drunken driving.

w Roughly nine of every 10 people arrested for drunken driving over those five years either were convicted or got court supervision, which does not show up as a conviction on a person's record.

w Almost six of those 10 got court supervision because it was their first DUI offense. Drivers usually are assured of supervision for first offenses, unless their blood alcohol is twice the legal limit of 0.08.

These numbers are a huge increase compared to the 1970s, when conviction rates were less than half, according to McLean County Judge Ronald Dozier, who said many cases never even went to trial.

How it was, how it changed

In the 1970s, Illinois was notorious for having one of the nation's weakest laws for prosecuting drunken drivers. Winning a conviction was nearly impossible, said Dozier, the county's state's attorney from 1976 to 1987.

Prosecutors often lost at trial because state laws kept them from telling juries if someone had failed a breath test, Dozier said. The conviction rate was so low police officers often were more interested in giving drunken drivers a safe ride home.

Normal Police Lt. Mark Kotte, a 23-year veteran of the department, echoed Dozier, saying there was more emphasis on getting drunken drivers off the road early in his career rather than charging them with DUI.

With weak laws making DUI convictions so rare, police officers often acted as a taxi service when they deemed a driver was too drunk, Kotte said.

Dozier said the law required police officers to give motorists at least two breath tests 20 minutes apart at the police station whenever they wanted to charge someone with DUI. The process typically took an officer off the street for a couple hours, Dozier said.

Public awareness about the dangers of driving drunk and the estimated 30,000 American deaths it was causing each year led to an attitude shift.

The group Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) formed in 1982 and began to push for tougher DUI laws and penalties.

Illinois lawmakers passed a bunch of laws - not only assuring costly fines and automatic loss of driving privileges for drunken drivers, but forcing judges to send people to prison when their erratic driving killed or injured someone.

"We're not (in the 1970s) anymore. DUIs are not OK," said McLean County State's Attorney William Yoder.

"When people go out this year and enjoy the holidays, they need to realize they're just a traffic accident away from going to prison."

Illinois has passed so many DUI laws in the last five years it's now considered to have some of the strongest laws for prosecuting drunken drivers, said George Heroux, a Springfield attorney and victim advocate for MADD.

But according to local court records and national statistics, the harsher laws haven't necessarily led to less drunken driving. In McLean County, the number of people charged with DUI has increased slightly during the five years of court records examined by The Pantagraph. Those records also showed

More than 4,200 people were arrested for DUI in the five years.

w Approximately 3,675 defendants either were convicted or received court supervision.

w Another 32 cases led to convictions for reckless driving.

w Only 85 people - about 2 percent - were found not guilty.

w About 440 cases are unaccounted for because the county's computer system only tracks the final outcome of cases by the date they were resolved. So many cases filed in the late part of 2004 will appear in McLean County's 2005 DUI statistics.

Yoder said he's unsure whether McLean County's increase is attributed to local law enforcement doing a better job of arresting people or if more people actually are driving drunk.

But the new laws are definitely leading to more felonies and more prison for those who drive drunk.

Laws can be tricky


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