A San Diego Sheriff's cruiser at a drunk driving checkpoint. Photo courtesy sheriff
A San Diego Sheriff’s cruiser at a drunk driving checkpoint. Photo via San Diego Sheriff’s Department

The District Attorney’s Office announced Wednesday that it has formed a new unit to focus on prosecuting drunken driving cases in San Diego County that involve fatalities and serious injuries.

The unit, which will be staffed by two experienced DUI prosecutors and an investigator, is being funded by a $500,000 grant from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and state Office of Traffic Safety.

District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis said the unit will also be involved in DUI prevention programs.

“Year after year, we see senseless deaths and injuries due to driving and drinking,” she said. “With this new unit — if even one life is saved, it will be worth it.”

Since Jan. 1, prosecutors have filed 15 cases that involve charges of murder or vehicular manslaughter that involve drinking and driving, and almost 250 DUI cases that involve injury. Last year, the totals were 13 and 260 for such prosecutions.

The District Attorney’s Office also pointed out that the time of year when many DUI violations occur — the holidays — is yet to come.

Half of the DUI cases prosecuted by the D.A.’s office involves defendants with a blood-alcohol level of 0.15 percent or more, which equates to the consumption of five to seven drinks, said Deputy District Attorney Cally Bright, who will lead the unit. The average blood-alcohol level has increased in recent years, she said.

The unit should make prosecutions quicker since Bright and colleague Aimee McLeod are already knowledgeable about technical details of major DUI cases, Bright said. Officials also hope it will make it easier for families of victims, who won’t have to deal with difference prosecutors as a case winds its way through the court system.