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  • By: Kevin Leckerman, Esq.
  • Published: September 29, 2015
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According to court administrator Michael Kehs, Montgomery County is reverting back to the old system from the pilot-program that segregated DUI cases into a separate court.

According to Kehs, DUI cases in Montco constitute between a quarter and a third of the inventory each year. The workload becomes too much for one judge to handle, and due to the heavy caseload, they have to revert back to the old system.

Unlike courts in the other 12 Pennsylvania counties, which consist of the drug court and the treatment-based DUI courts, the DUI court in Montco was not a treatment court. In Montco, the DUI court places all DUI cases in the same courtroom.

DUI courts in Philadelphia and elsewhere are for repeat offenders only and they combine both treatment and punishment.

In 2014, a total of 1,087 DUI cases were settled by DUI Court Judge Cheryl Lynne Austin who presided over 1,250 trials. The cases were settled through ARD (Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition). Ever since the launch of ARD in January 2014, Austin has presided over the DUI court and has been wrapping up cases before she transfers in January to Orphans’ Court, according to Kehs.

Kehs also said that new drunken driving cases will be distributed among the other criminal-division judge beginning this week. Another judge will join the bench in January, bringing the division to a total of eight judges.

The program made the court process faster, more efficient and consistent, according to prosecutors. However, public defenders were a little less positive about the program, stating that it led to harsher punishments for low-level offenders.

District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman said, “From the law enforcement perspective, it gave us a place and the resources to be able to target high-risk offenders. Under our typical court system, they’re scattered in so many different places that there’s not an easy means to coordinate them.”

Interviews were carried out earlier this year related to the program and its achievements. Ferman, who is running for a seat as a judge in County Court said that she spent years helping design the program, advocating it and also touted its launch during her two terms as district attorney.

“It was an outstanding program, and it worked very well. But if the court doesn’t wish to support it, then it’s entirely up to them,” she said.

The head of the public defender’s DUI team, John E. Kravitz, was also interviewed. He stated that the nature of the court often leaned in favour of the prosecutors.

“More attention translated into clobbering. People who had problems with depression and anxiety, maybe took an extra Xanax and were driving erratically, would be punished the same way as someone who was having 10 beers and gets behind the wheel,” he said.

Both Kravitz and Ferman praised Austin’s work, agreeing that the caseload required more than a single judge to take care.

According to the county’s chief DUI prosecutor, Brad Richman, drunken-driving cases do not always get the priority they deserve, although they are among the most deadly and common crimes that happen. According to him, a DUI case is not the same as a retail theft case and should not be put off. A lot of DUI cases wend their way through the system and are put off, simply because the lawyer had something else to do that day, which is wrong.

However, Kravitz disagreed, saying that at the end of the day, a DUI case might just be a misdemeanor.

Any requests for comments were not answered by President Judge William J. Furber Jr.

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