In his 24 years with the Ontario County District Attorney’s Office, District Attorney R. Michael Tantillo said he has seen the community’s attitude toward driving while intoxicated improve significantly. He attributes the change, in part, to his office’s reputation of being tough in prosecuting DWI cases.
“We’ve seen tremendous change,” he said. “Thirty years ago, it wasn’t easy to get a DWI conviction. … Today the tolerance of drunk driving is non-existent.”
Ontario County has had the state’s highest DWI conviction rate for 28 of the past 29 years, Tantillo said. Over that time, fatal alcohol-related crashes have declined from an average of 15 per year to two.
For its efforts, the district attorney’s office recently received the Recognition of Excellence award from the New York chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the New York State STOP-DWI Foundation. The award recognizes 30 years of excellence in DWI prosecution.
Tantillo said the award has typically been given to individuals; this is the first time an entire agency has been recognized.
“I’m appreciative of that because it really is a team effort,” he said.
Assistant District Attorneys Neal McClelland and Kirk Hazen — who have both been with the office for over 20 years — try most DWI cases, but a lot of preliminary work is done by others in the office, Tantillo said.
“Everyone here buys into the mission,” he said. “I really feel this problem is the single most important thing we do in this office to basically protect lives.”
Tantillo said Ontario County differs from most counties in New York in that there are assistant district attorneys designated specifically to handle DWI cases across the county. Most offices assign them to certain municipalities, and they handle all types of cases within them.
McClelland and Hazen, who is retiring in three months after 22 years with the office, have both handled over 300 DWI cases in their tenure, Tantillo said.
Also honored by Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the STOP-DWI Foundation was the Ontario County Sheriff’s Office, with the Law Enforcement Recognition of Excellence award. The award recognizes the office’s efforts to deter impaired driving on county highways in 2012.