Of all the calls an editor gets, few are more common than the desperate DUI.
The conversation is usually quick and to the point. Usually the caller asks with a quiver in his or her voice: "Do you print DUIs?"
I reply, "After the conviction."
Then another question: "Is there any way you could not run mine?"
Unfailingly, I have to say, "I am sorry, I have to run it."
What follows after that can vary from outrage to weeping.
Contrary to popular belief, I don't relish putting the names in the newspaper. And contrary to popular belief, I don't do it to sell more papers. I can't think of a single instance in which someone has told me — or any member of the staff, "I buy your newspaper for the DUIs."
Printing any court records means that we're going to get phone calls.
Marriage licenses come in as a close second for number of calls. Sometimes the reasons are amusing, like, "I don't want my grandma to know I married him. She hates him."
We print news of public record, ranging from court cases to police calls to births, because at our most basic, The Billings Gazette is a tangible record of what happened. Part of that story is told through what happens in the court or through public documents whether that's birth certificates, who gets married, where crime happens or even the weather report. It all comes together to create a picture of what went on. You can't just pick and chose. You can't be arbitrary. And the truth be told, most people would rather their name not appear in the paper, even if it is something as benign as a marriage license.
DUIs and any court conviction usually carry a social stigma. For many, the consequences meted out by the courts pale compared to those outside the courtroom. Many lose their job.
Often, the newspaper, and by extension that creepy editor who insisted on running the DUI convictions, gets blamed for the problems.
In reality, we simply choose to report what happens in the court. We believe part of our value is being a record of court proceedings, including criminal convictions. And, if we had to get permission from every person in court, we'd never print a word. And most people wouldn't know what happens in court, even though they pay for the justice system.
Many ask if we have a DUI policy. We don't have many hard-and-fast policies because as any reporter will tell you: The circumstances from case to case vary widely. Most of the time, we only print DUI convictions. That means, a name might appear when a person is arrested for a DUI in our police blotter. The name may not appear again until the person is convicted.
That changes when someone reaches his or her fourth DUI, which is a felony offense.
Again, that's a general guideline. If a politician or leader gets arrested for DUI, that would be different. Is that a double standard? You bet. But, people who are in the public spotlight, often by their own choice, are held to a different set of standards. Gauging exactly who fits the definition of public figure is a bit more tricky. That'll have to wait for a different column.
There's probably plenty of room for discussing whether you think DUI is something worthy of newspaper coverage. However, one other key factor should be kept in mind: DUIs are a serious public health issue. We have covered stories of drunken drivers injuring others, hurting themselves or doing plenty of damage. DUI is an issue in hard-drinking Montana. If you don't believe it, just take a peek at the number of DUIs the county attorney deals with. Since Jan. 1, 2010, the Yellowstone County Attorney's Office has had more than 560 cases of DUI — this doesn't count the number of cases that went through the city of Billings or were prosecuted for something other than DUI.
As long as we continue to experience these kind of numbers — statistics which indicate a problem that needs addressing in our community — DUIs will continue to be a part of our coverage.