District attorney credits police and prosecutorial teamwork

Ontario County is once again tops in the state when it comes to prosecution of driving while intoxicated offenses.

The county, according to statistics released Tuesday by the state Department of Motor Vehicles, had a 93.38 percent conviction rate for 2016, nearly 14 percent higher than second-place Yates County. In fact, Ontario County has been No. 1 in prosecuting DWI offenses every year since 1994, according to the report, with the exception of 2007 when Yates County took the top spot and Ontario came in second.

“Yates County nosed us out one year,” said Ontario County District Attorney Michael Tantillo. “But, if you look at those numbers, the Finger Lakes Region is by the far the safest region in the state when it comes to DWI. It's very gratifying to see. From talking to the DAs in other counties, I know that all of them take this very seriously, as well.”

Half of the 14 counties in the DMV's Finger Lakes Region scored in the top 10 with Yates County in second place; Seneca, third; Wayne, fifth; Schuyler, sixth; Livingston, seventh; and Monroe, eighth.

Rounding out the top 10 are Nassau County in fourth; Broome, ninth; and Genesee, 10th.

“It's not just about DWI prosecutions,” said Suzanne Cirencione, who has been Ontario County's STOP-DWI administrator for the past three years. “It's about keeping the streets safe for all of our residents that travel. It just says that if you come here and travel, you can enjoy all of the things our county has to offer and we're doing everything that we can to keep people safe.”

Cirencione credits a team approach beginning with citizens calling 911 to report erratic driving and law enforcement officers who annually receive continued training in DWI detection and are dedicated to keeping the public safe.

“Our Probation Department works with convicted DWI offenders, supervising conditions that mandate rehabilitation and public safety,” she said. “Finally, our zero tolerance policy at the district attorney's office sends a strong message to residents that we value their safety and that those making the choice to drive impaired in Ontario County, if apprehended, will be prosecuted to the fullest.”

Figures for Ontario County show 393 DWI convictions for 2016, including 26 for driving while ability impaired by alcohol. In addition, there were 87 convictions for driving while ability impaired by drugs, something Tantillo said is exploding in conjunction with the national opioid epidemic and changing attitudes in marijuana use.

He said he was pleased Ontario County came in sixth in drug-related DWAI convictions, even though it is the 27th in size by population.

“What that shows is the police officers in this county are extremely well trained in detecting people driving not only under the influence of alcohol, but under the influence of drugs,” Tantillo said. “If you look at it on a per-capita basis, we have far more arrests and convictions for driving under the influence than any other county.”

Yates County has an 80-percent conviction rate with 56 DWI convictions, and 14 each for DWAI by alcohol and DWAI by drugs; while Wayne County has a 69.81 percent rate with 215 DWI convictions, 93 DWAI by alcohol and 17 DWAI by drugs.

“I think all of the Finger Lakes counties have their own unique issues and how they attack impaired driving,” said Cirencione. “We have always been significantly higher, and we're proud of what we do. I always just say I'm glad to be a part of the team.”

Prosecuting drunken and drugged drivers has been a mission for Tantillo since joining the district attorney's office 38 years ago.

“Back in the 1980s, when Jim Harvey was the DA and I was his first assistant, we used to see 10 to 12 innocent people killed every year,” Tantillo said, noting they obtained a grant that allowed them to devote three part-time assistants to DWI-related prosecutions. Part of the grant terms required commitment to a zero-tolerance policy, which Ontario County still maintains.

“We started to see real signs of success,” Tantillo said, noting the year the grant expired, the state created the STOP-DWI program, which allowed them to continue dedicated prosecutions. Back then, most assistant district attorneys, particularly in rural counties, were part-timers. Now, Tantillo has a team of two full-time assistants devoted to prosecuting DWI-related offenses.

He said the number of fatalities has dropped, on average, to one or two a year.

“We saw a tremendous reduction in the number of deaths in drunken driving,” he said. “While I would like to see zero, I'll still take an 80 percent reduction anytime.”

Tantillo, who is retiring at the end of this year, said he has also noticed a spectacular change in personal attitudes about drunken driving through public service announcements, criminal sanctions and extensive publicity every time a tragic crash occurs.

“We are trying to encourage people to drink responsibly and drive safely,” he said. “I really think a lot of people got that message.”