Examining the Gap Between Prosecutor Attitudes and Decisions: Case Prioritization Through Case Elimination Mechanisms in Driving With a Suspended License Cases

Date01 June 2022
Published date01 June 2022
Subject MatterArticles
Examining the Gap Between
Prosecutor Attitudes and
Decisions: Case Prioritization
Through Case Elimination
Mechanisms in Driving With
a Suspended License Cases
Maria E. Arndt
Prosecutors are granted considerable discretion, particularly for misdemeanors. The current study
assesses the processing of misdemeanor driving with suspended license (DWSL) cases. Using inter-
view and administrative data from a Florida jurisdiction, the study f‌irst examines prosecutorial atti-
tudes about case elimination mechanismsdeclination, dismissal, and diversionthen evaluates the
extent to which prosecutorsviews about handling DWSL cases and racial disparities in the legal sys-
tem are ref‌lective of case processing outcomes. Results indicate prosecutors view case prioritization
as important, though it is unclear how they achieve it. Despite a reluctance to decline cases when the
elements of an offense are supported by evidence, prosecutors acknowledge they cannot pursue all
offenses if there is onlymarginal public safety return. Contemporaneous administrative data show that
DWSL cases were routinely pursued in 2017: nearly all DWSL cases were f‌iled, a third were dis-
missed, and 11% were diverted. Regression analysis also demonstrates that prosecutorsviews on
racial and ethnic disparities are somewhat aligned with the case processing decisions for DWSL
cases processed in 2017. These f‌indings are discussed in terms of their implications for prosecutorial
policy, practice, and the effects of prosecutorial discretion for low-level cases on communities.
prosecutorial discretion, misdemeanors, racial disparities, prioritization
Prosecutors are granted substantial discretion in criminal case processing (Davis, 2018), but they
have historically not been subject to the same level of scrutiny as other criminal justice agents
(Bushway & Piehl, 2001). Prosecutorial research, although having made strides recently, is still in
Criminology and Criminal Justice, Florida International University, Miami, FL, USA
Corresponding Author:
Maria E. Arndt, Criminology and Criminal Justice, Florida International University, Miami, 11200 SW 8th St, Miami,
FL 33199, USA.
Email: marnd001@f‌iu.edu
Criminal Justice Review
2022, Vol. 47(2) 243268
© 2021 Georgia State University
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/07340168211061162
its infancy (Johnson, 2014; Johnson & Lee, 2013; Ulmer et al., 2007). Existing studies on prosecu-
tion largely focus on felonies and serious offenders (Albonetti, 1986; Spohn & Holleran, 2001;
Spohn et al., 2014). A smaller body of scholarship has examined misdemeanor cases
(Kohler-Hausmann, 2018; Natapoff, 2011, 2015; Roberts, 2013), yet misdemeanors constitute the
bulk of criminal caseloads (Worden & Clark, 2019). Prosecutorial discretion is particularly vast
and unregulated for lower-level offenses (Stevenson & Mayson, 2018).
Most prosecutorsoff‌ices cannot handle all referred cases (Brown, 2012), so several mecha-
nisms for streamlining case processing have evolved. One common method to expedite case dis-
pensation is plea bargaining, which reduces the burden of taking every case to trial; 95% of cases
are disposed of through guilty pleas (Devers, 2011). Other mechanisms focus on caseload man-
agement rather than expedition (Ostrom & Hanson, 1999; Ostrom et al., 2018). Refusal to f‌ile
charges, diversion, and post-f‌iling case dismissal are vital instruments that prosecutorial off‌ices
can use to dispose of cases eff‌iciently, manage their workloads, and prioritize more serious
One understudied area in which prosecutors exercise discretion is in dealing with minor traff‌ic
offenses, such as Driving with a Suspended License (DWSL). Most DWSL cases referred by law
enforcement do not involve traff‌ic accidents and only 7% of all traff‌ic accidents resulting in fatalities
involve a person with an invalid or suspended drivers license (Carnegie & Eger, 2009). Furthermore,
a nontrivial percentage of suspended licenses that subsequently result in DWSL charges are due to
minor traff‌ic infractions, failure to pay child support, or other administrative infractions (Pawasarat &
Stetzer, 1998). Carnegie and Egers report showed 36% of instances in which a person had their
license suspended were due to non-driving related civil infractions including unpaid f‌ines.
Moreover, only 3.4% of drivers who had their license suspended one or more times were involved
in traff‌ic accidents during a suspension period. These statistics indicate that in many cases, DWSL
charges are a signal of indigence rather than of dangerous driving habits (Carnegie & Eger,
2009). In this context, prosecutors can use rejection, diversion, and dismissal after the defendant
obtains a valid license to reduce DWSL caseload, thus alleviating the number low-income defendants
entering the legal system.
Despite the low risk of traff‌ic accidents posed by defendants charged with DWSL, the penalties
for these charges can be signif‌icant.
DWSL charges carry collateral consequences for defendants
including potential loss of employment due to an inability to drive, loss of public housing, and sub-
sequent f‌inancial hardships (Brady, 2018; Corkrey, 2003). Given that traff‌ic stops are the most
common form of law enforcement and legal contact and yet remain vastly understudied (Davis et
al., 2018), examining the connection between prosecutorial attitudes toward case elimination and
decision making in DWSL cases is important for both prosecutors and DWSL defendants. In
Florida, public transportation in large cities is poor compared to other urban centers. There is evi-
dence that low-income individuals in Florida who do not have access to adequate public transporta-
tion experience negative health outcomes (Daley et al., 2011) and those who have their licenses
suspended have diff‌iculty f‌inding and maintaining employment (Pawasarat & Stetzer, 1998).
Thus, prosecutorial policy has far-reaching effects beyond leading to criminal records. Low-level
offenses far outnumber more serious crimes which necessitates more attention that has largely
been paid to felonies (Kohler-Hausmann, 2018).
Using interview and administrative data collected from a mid-sized urban State AttorneysOff‌ice
in Florida, this study f‌irst assesses prosecutorial attitudes about case elimination mechanisms
rejection at f‌iling, dismissal, and diversionand then evaluates the extent to which views about
their role in criminal case processing, how to handle DWSL cases, and racial and ethnic disparities
are ref‌lective of actual case processing outcomes. Finally, using a multinomial logistic regression
model, the current study assesses extralegal disparities for these decision points and compares
these results to interview responses.
244 Criminal Justice Review 47(2)

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