More drunk driving or more enforcement?

Rappahannock’s DUI arrest rate is the highest in the region

By Julia Fair and Patty Hardee
Special to the Rappahannock News

Drunk- and drugged-driving statistics from the Virginia Alcohol Safety Action Program (VASAP) show that in the years 2013 to 2015, DUI arrests in Rappahannock County averaged .603 percent of the county’s population — a 60 percent increase over the average of .378 during the previous seven years.

In the same 10-year period, DUI arrests decreased in the surrounding counties of Culpeper, Fauquier, Madison, and Orange counties — which comprise Virginia’s Planning District 9 — with Orange County having the lowest average 10-year DUI arrest rate at .386 percent of population.

VASAP was created in 1972 to provide court-ordered, impaired-driving prevention services; it also tracks the number of DUI incidents across the state. VASAP’s statistics show that in the planning district in 2013-2015, Rappahannock’s DUI arrests are the only arrests on the rise. Though Fauquier County has the highest per-capita arrest rate during the 10-year period, at .598 percent, its rate has been dropping.

After Fauquier County, for the 10 years ending in 2015, Culpeper has the next highest rate at .448, followed by Rappahannock at .446, Madison at .417 and Orange at .386.

Convictions for DUIs in Rappahannock County District Court, however, have remained fairly constant across the 10-year period, with an average of 65.44 percent of arrests resulting in guilty pleas or findings of guilt. VASAP calls these convictions “referrals” (because those convicted of driving under the influence are referred to VASAP as part of their sentence; successful completion of the program is mandatory).

Rappahannock County Sheriff Connie S. Compton credits Rappahannock’s higher number of arrests per capita simply, and unsurprisingly, to proactive police work — even attributing the recent rise in part to a certain sheriff’s deputy (who has since left the department but who, she said, worked especially diligently to arrest drunk and impaired drivers).“During the years 2013 to 2015, [he] made a lot of arrests,” she says.

But routinely, she says, “our deputies are out and proactive, paying attention to driving behavior. We are trying to keep the roads safe. We have family and friends who travel these roads too.”

Just in the last two weeks, as an example, Rappahannock deputies made five DUI arrests, several of them coming after single-vehicle crashes and one after a brief chase.

Compton, who was a patrol deputy early in her career at the Rappahannock County Sheriff’s Office, says that she has always taken DUIs seriously. “They are a big deal to me.” (Her single-year total of 36 DUI arrests remains the record for a single officer in the department.)

Criminal defense attorney Frank Reynolds agrees that increased law enforcement over the past few years has had an effect. Reynolds has practiced for about 30 years in Rappahannock and surrounding jurisdictions and handles a great number of DUI cases.

Over the past several years, he says, he has noticed a stricter adherence to existing laws. In the past, he says, officers might have let drivers go if they had a somewhat lower blood alcohol concentration than the legal limit of .08, but observes that in recent years law enforcement has tightened up on that practice.

At the same time, he says, “I’ve seen fewer arrested drivers with really high blood alcohol levels [.15 and above]. Maybe they’ve all been busted already.”

Technology, too, plays a role, says Reynolds. “Officers are better able to test for other substances that can cause intoxication,” such as opioid drugs. “I’ve seen more DUIs by drugs in the past five years than I did in the previous 10 years.”

One thing’s for sure, though, “Every society known to man has had some kind of intoxicant,” he says, “and a small percentage misuse it. That’s why we need laws and oversight.”

Next time: How arrests compare to convictions and sentences in court — in Rappahannock, the region and throughout the state.

Under the influence

Is the increase in DUI arrests in Rappahannock good news or bad news? Are there just more impaired drivers on the road than in the past, or are the higher numbers a result of better police work? And do the numbers hold up in court convictions, or affect the frequency of repeat-offender arrests?

With reporting and research by Foothills Forum-sponsored reporting intern Julia Fair, and court reporter Patty Hardee, the Rappahannock News will delve into those questions, looking at trends and factors across the region that may affect the number of arrests, dispositions at the court level, sentencing practices for first-time and repeat offenders, and programs designed to lessen drunk and drugged drivers on our roads.

About Patty Hardee 271 Articles
Writer, consultant, actor, director, recovering stand-up comic, Patty covers the county’s courts and other topics of interest for Rappahannock News. She lives with her grape-growing husband Bill Freitag in Flint Hill.