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Court Discusses Leandra’s Law

The Facts of the Case:

On 18 November 2009, the State enacted Leandra’s Law, roughly one month after the DWI death of an 11-year-old in New York City. It demands, inter alia, that all first-time, misdemeanor DWI offenders install ignition interlock devices in every automobile they own or operate for at least 6 months; barring indigency, that offenders pay for installation and maintenance of the interlocks. However, Leandra’s Law exhibits numerous defects which put its constitutionality in question.

Meanwhile, a defendant pled guilty to driving while intoxicated or drunk driving pursuant to the Vehicle and Traffic Law. Following Leandra’s Law, New York’s newest anti-DWI measure, the matter is now before the Court for sentencing under it.

The Issues of the Case:

The issues stem from the State’s failure to establish determinate ignition interlocking costs. First, there is the question of whether the indeterminate nature of the cost of installing and maintaining ignition interlocks invalidates the requirement defendants pay for the devices, given the cost is statutorily classified as a fine and therefore constitutes a criminal punishment; whether that issue informs a related New York constitutional concern where the State violated New York constitutional law by failing properly to promulgate a final interlock cost list. Second, there is the question of whether the lack of a statutory metric for determining a defendant’s ability to pay for the ignition interlock violates equal protection because it may lead to arbitrary enforcement; whether requiring defendants to interlock every auto they own or operate is justifiable.

The Ruling of the Court:

As a general rule, lower courts should eschew constitutional questions related to statutes unless absolutely necessary. A New York Criminal Lawyer said those seeking to prove statutes to be unconstitutional must do so beyond a reasonable doubt. However, here, constitutional questions are unavoidable.

As provide for in the amended Vehicle and Traffic Law, it is required that those convicted finance ignition interlock installation and maintenance unless the sentencing court determines they cannot afford to do so. The law classifies the installation and maintenance costs as a criminal fine. Thus, the failure to pay for the interlock may prompt imprisonment. Notwithstanding their status as criminal fines, the interlock costs are ultimately indeterminate. This indeterminacy stems from the intentionally open-ended manner by which the State chose to calculate them. The New York Division of Probation and Correctional Alternatives (DPCA) which is now known as the Office of Probation and Correctional Alternatives (OPCA), a subdivision of the Division of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS, the Department)), following an application and approval process, created a regulatory scheme whereby private companies contracted with the State to provide and maintain interlock services.

A Nassau County Criminal Lawyer said there was a maximum fee/charge schedule with respect to all operators’ costs associated with such devices to which the prices they charge conform to. By reason of the fact that not everyone sentenced to interlocking can afford it, the Department had to contrive a means to pay for interlocking for indigent drivers or operators. Instead of having local governments finance them, the Department insisted that the qualified manufacturers, nominally, at least, pay for them. Under the new law, the court, upon determining financial unaffordability to pay the cost of the device, may impose a payment plan with respect to the device or waive the fee. The New Vehicle and Traffic law statutory provisions require that where the cost is waived, DCJS through its regulation shall determine who bears the costs of the device or through such other agreement which may be entered into. Thus, DCJS’ regulation requires qualified manufacturers, and not local governments or taxpayers to bear such costs. During the application process, manufacturers supply proposed fee structures that must take into consideration and be based upon an anticipated ten percent (10%) waiver of the fees by sentencing courts due to operator unaffordability. The ten percent figure derives from the Department’s speculation based upon the experience of other states. The defendants claiming indigency are obliged to seek a payment waiver from the court. To obtain the waiver, they must complete and submit to the court a financial history/status form prepared by the Department designed to aid the court’s indigency determination. Curiously, the law supplies no indigency metric to guide the court; nor is the court obliged to use the financial history form in making its determination. Ironically, DPCA developed the form to remedy perceived shortcomings in the statute: as the statutory language does not refer to indigency nor contain other limiting criteria based upon prescribed income levels or guidelines, including federal poverty, food stamps and participation in other government assistance programs, DPCA developed the FDR or Financial Disclosure Report form to provide the judiciary with information to better gauge whether the operator has resources to pay for device installation and maintenance. On 15 July 2010, the Department has approved seven qualified manufacturers, and, via memorandum, has published a list of each provider’s prices for services. The listed prices constitute the maximum fees permitted: the prices represented in the matrix are maximum or ceiling prices. However, these costs aren’t final, besides setting up the possibility of annual rate increases. Moreover, nothing it prohibits manufacturers from increasing operator prices mid-contract. In a recent information session for New York judges, the Director of DPCA/OPCA explained that the Department retains such pricing power to ensure the ongoing viability of the provider-subsidy scheme for indigent defendants. But, if indeed, even a payment plan is determined unfeasible and it is determined that this person is unable to afford it, then the manufacturers will provide the ignition interlock device and they will do so free of charge because implicit in the cost schedules that they submitted as a condition of becoming a qualified manufacturer, consistent with our regulations, they assumed a 10% unaffordability rate statewide. That was based on the examination of other states. If that exceeds 10% statewide, it was agreed in to allow the manufacturers to renegotiate their agreements. But, it is important for judges to note that there’s a limit to what manufacturers will be able to bear before they leave the state. There are two primary issues that affect the viable programs nationwide, monitoring and unaffordability. For this reason, they designed the financial disclosure report form to provide judges with the most accurate information concerning each operator.

Here, the Court holds that the defendant cannot be obliged to pay for any ignition interlock device to be installed on any automobile he or she owns or operates. First, the State has failed to provide adequate notice of the costs related to interlock installation and maintenance. Second, no final, determinate interlock cost list has been properly filed with New York’s Secretary of State, as New York’s constitution requires. If the State seeks to have interlocks installed in defendant’s automobiles, it must find alternative funding sources to do so. Moreover, the court finds that Part 358.8 of Title 9 NYCRR and the Vehicle and Traffic Law § 1198 (4) are unconstitutional to the extent that they require the Court to make indigency determinations without a statutory metric for ascertaining indigency. Thus, the Court will grant no indigency waivers. In addition, the Court finds that the requirement under the Vehicle and Traffic Law that defendant install interlocks in every car he owns or operates is unconstitutionally overbroad and therefore limits the installation requirement to any car a defendant chooses to operate.

In view of the above, the court finds that the defendant must be sentenced to pay a $500 fine and a $395 surcharge-victim fee; his driver’s license must be revoked for six months; he must be given a conditional discharge to take and complete successfully a Drinking Driver Program or a drunk driving program authorized by the New York State within one year; for a six month period, he must be prohibited from operating an automobile without an ignition interlock and he must be given ten (10) business days from the issuance of the order to have an ignition interlock installed in any auto he chooses to drive where a twenty (20) day extension of his license may be granted.

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