American Judges Association


Date of this Version

January 2003


Published in Court Review: The Journal of the American Judges Association, 39:4 (2003), pp. 18-22. Copyright © 2003 National Center for State Courts. Used by permission. Online at


Technology is becoming an increasingly pervasive aspect of the criminal justice system. One of the earliest technological innovations in the investigation of crimes was the use of fingerprints for identification of suspects. Fingerprinting began as an investigatory tool and by the early 20th century was accepted as scientific evidence in court proceedings.

Courts now increasingly rely upon expert witnesses to explain scientific evidence, which is often critical in the decision- making process for criminal and civil courts. While technology has routinely been utilized as both investigatory and evidentiary devices, only in the last decade has a technological device made the transition from investigation to evidence to sentencing element. The breath-analyzed ignition interlock is the device that has experienced this metamorphosis.

Drunken driving emerged as a new crime in the 20th century. DWI was unknown at common law. With the development of the automobile in the dawn of the last century, the predilection for the fruit of the vine of some members of society combined dangerously with this new mechanized mode of travel.

By the 1970s the streets and highways of America were plagued by drivers who were too impaired to safely handle a vehicle. Enforcement of DWI laws was, at best, spotty. In the early 1980s, activist groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) began organizing and pushing for reforms in the approach to DWI. Simultaneously, legislatures began proposing and passing new legislation aimed at the DWI problem. As a result of a combination of this change in public opinion, more serious enforcement, and expanded penalties, the arrest rate fell from 1,124 per 100,000 drivers in 1986, to 809 per 100,000 in 1997. This is a 28% decrease in the DWI arrest rate. But there are still a substantial number of impaired drivers on the roads. Even with this decrease, alcohol plays a role in far too many motor vehicle crashes. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that in 1999, alcohol was a factor in 38% of fatal crashes and in 7% of all vehicle crashes. In 1998, 1.4 million persons were arrested for DWI.

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