ATLANTA — Law enforcement officers arrest tens of thousands of drunken driving suspects across Georgia every year. But a Channel 2 Action News investigation found that barely a third result in convictions.
Channel 2 Investigative Reporter Richard Belcher found convictions in one major county are less than 25 percent.
In 2012, 19-year-old Michael Kennedy and three of his friends were waiting for a tow truck along I-20 in DeKalb County when another car slammed into them.
The driver's blood alcohol level was three times the legal limit.
Kennedy was killed and two of his friends were critically injured.
"I'm living it now, and I haven't gotten over it. I've just learned how to get through it," Natasha Mitchell, Kennedy's mother, told Belcher.
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Four years after his death, Mitchell is active with Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
Most of that time she spent doggedly following her son's killer's case through the DeKalb County court system.
She told Belcher closure came only after her son's killer was convicted.
"I felt like she needed to be held accountable. I felt like everyone needed to see that you are held accountable for doing this so that this can maybe deter someone else," Mitchell said.
The woman who killed Kennedy was held accountable. Karen Belmar, of Lithonia, was convicted of DUI and vehicular homicide, and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
But Belcher found the vast majority of DUI cases in Georgia do not result in a conviction.
Belcher examined 10 years of data from the Georgia Bureau of Investigations.
Of the more than 800,000 DUI cases, 36 percent ended in convictions.
No metro county reached a 50 percent conviction rate.
Conviction rates for the five main metro counties:
- Clayton 45.5 percent
- Cobb 44.3 percent
- DeKalb 39.7 percent
- Gwinnett 35.3 percent
- Fulton 24.4 percent
"It is disappointing, obviously," Sgt, 1st Class John Cronin, of the Georgia State Patrol, told Belcher.
Cronin is the North Post commander for the Nighthawks, the State Patrol's DUI Task Force.
Cronin says DUI cases are complex and often not clear-cut. And more defendants are refusing roadside sobriety tests that can provide important evidence.
Troopers, he says, have to make their cases, then step back.
"Once that case and that evidence is turned over to the court system, they just have to pass that torch and realize that they're now just a witness for the state," Cronin told Belcher.
Atlanta attorney Bubba Head is one of the best-known DUI defense attorneys in the country.
Belcher showed Head the conviction rates.
"It doesn't surprise me," Head told Belcher.
Head contends legislators have taken away much of the discretion police once had to evaluate potential DUI arrests.
"They smell alcohol, and pretty much you're going to jail. And that means with or without a whole lot of evidence," Head said.
In Fulton County, one out of every four DUI suspects is convicted.
Head told Belcher that may be because prosecutors in some smaller city courts are unwilling to negotiate pleas.
When that happens, Head says he demands a trial in Fulton County State Court.
Belcher found Fulton County cases are often more than two years old before they go to trial.
A trial delay can hurt the prosecution when, for example, law enforcement officers are transferred or move, or witnesses disappear.
Natasha Mitchell knows about delays.
Her son's killer wasn't convicted until three years after his death.
But finally it happened.
"It makes you feel like justice has been served," Mitchell said.
Cox Media Group