HOUSTON -- If you drink and drive and get caught drunk in Harris County, there's a new court-ordered program that might allow you to have your record wiped clean.
But since the county has the nation’s worst record for drunk-driving deaths, you can imagine some people don't think that's a great idea.
The 11 News I-Team dug into this and found an evolving controversy that centers on what's being done---and not being done---in the courtroom of one Harris County Judge.
Every year in Harris County, some 6,000 people are stopped, arrested and charged with DWI for their first time. Faced with jail time, fines and a record that can make getting or keeping certain jobs a problem, first-time DWI offenders may wish they could just make it all go away. A new program called DIVERT might make that possible.
"I was a criminal defense attorney for 22 years and to me, it's a gold mine. I think it's one of the greatest things I've ever seen," said Roger Bridgewater, an Assistant Harris County District Attorney.
The DA's office launched DIVERT a year ago. It’s an attempt to stop a troubling rise in the number of DWI arrests (DIVERT stands for Direct Intervention using Voluntary Education Restitution and Treatment.)
"What we've been doing hasn't worked and the numbers have only been going up," Bridgewater said.
The numbers Bridgewater is talking about are arrests of repeat DWI offenders: They've doubled in the past year.
One possible reason: First-time offenders aren't getting treatment. Since 2000, an increasing number of first-time offenders have been choosing jail time and fines instead of probation.
No probation means never having to undergo alcohol-treatment programs that might keep them from driving drunk in the future. So the DA had to come up with a way to entice them into treatment.
DIVERT means agreeing to up to two years of supervision, counseling and clean living. In return, if offenders keep out of trouble for two more years, the DWI can be wiped off their record, or "expunged," almost like it never happened.
There's just one problem: A judge named Bill Harmon.
"Nobody from Judge Harmon's court has been allowed to go into the DIVERT program," said Clyde Burleson, a Houston defense attorney.
DWI defendants are randomly assigned to one of 15 Harris County judges. All of them have now approved an average of 166 defendants each for DIVERT. All that is, except Judge Harmon, who has approved none.
Scott Ramsey is one of several defense attorneys who contend it's unfair to their clients to be denied what others can get just by the luck of the draw.
"They should be allowed to participate in it," said Ramsey.
Another defense attorney with clients in Harmon’s court, Clyde Burleson, said the first-time offenders he represents are just what the program is designed for -- people with no significant criminal histories who might deserve the benefit of the doubt.
"They're unlikely to ever get in trouble again,” said Burleson.
So why does Harmon oppose DIVERT?
"It's illegal," said Harmon.
Harmon said the new program is nothing more than "deferred adjudication." Deferred adjudication is a way a judge can delay or defer convicting someone to see if they can keep out of trouble. If they do, the judge then may dismiss the case.
So what's wrong with that?
Years ago, Texas lawmakers, trying to crack down on repeat drunk drivers, banned using deferred adjudication for DWIs.
And yet, Harmon appears to be alone in his total refusal to honor the new program.
“All 14 of my colleagues are doing it. And certainly I could have gone along with this illegal program, and if I had, you wouldn't be sitting down here today," Harmon told 11 News as he sat in his courtroom.
The judge isn’t alone in his opposition to DIVERT. Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) agreed with his actions.
"That's fine with us," said Bill Lewis, the public policy liaison for MADD Texas.
The district attorney’s office disagrees, contending DIVERT is not deferred adjudication, but would not comment on Harmon's maverick position.
"I told you earlier, I'm not going to address the personalities of the judges, we've got great members of the judiciary here," said Bridgewater.
What's next? A higher court or even the Texas legislature may have to decide who's right: The judge or the DA.