Thursday, January 7, 2009
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
GET THE DRUNKS OFF THE ROAD IN LOUSIANA
Louisiana has always been a “free and easy” state when it comes to drinking and driving. Visitors are dumbfonded they see drive through Daiquiri shops across the state. Just as prevalent are the drive through liquor stores that punctuate the Bayou State. And the results should not be surprising. Fifty three per cent of all serious injuries and highway deaths involve a drunk driver. So why hasn’t there been more outrage across the state? And why are there not tougher laws on the books?
Actually, Louisiana has some of the toughest DWI laws of any state in the country. For a third offence DWI there is no discretion for judges. An offender with three convictions faces a mandatory sentence of two years in jail. And get this – the party convicted is supposed to have their car seized and sold out from under them. Have a mortgage? Tough luck. Should have thought about that before you drove impaired.
I wrote the current law and lobbied the Louisiana Legislature to pass this legislation back in 1996. But have you ever read where a third offender DWI had the car taken off the road and sold? Not once. Two year jail time with no suspended sentence? Rarely if ever done unless someone else is killed in a collision with the drunk driver.
The problem is one of enforcement. Many judges and district attorneys just ignore the law. Often a prosecutor will reduce a DWI change to careless and reckless driving. Or the admitted drunk will be allowed to enter a diversion program to get the charge off of his or her record. And often, computer information systems in one parish are not able to communicate with similar information in another parish, so a prosecutor is not aware of previous convictions. Hard to believe in this day and age of computer technology.
A driver in St. Tammany Parish recently was convicted of his 7th DWI. Seven. Where was the red flag at three, or four or five or six? How could a guy like this slip through the cracks? In Baton Rouge and surrounding parishes one can read of someone arrested for fourth-offense DWI. In years past, someone was not doing their job.
Many other states have both enacted and strongly enforced a number of new laws that cut little slack for drunk drivers. In Virginia, accused drunk drivers who fail breath tests when stopped by police will have their licenses suspended immediately even before they are tried in court. New Mexico, that has a major DWI problem, requires an “ignition interlock” for every convicted drunk driver, even on the first offense. No exceptions.
In New York, tough new steps have been taken to curb a major drunk driving problem. Drivers there who have been convicted of being drunk while carrying passengers 15 years or younger face up to four years in prison, even when there is no wreck involved. And how about this tough sanction: a Long Island, N.Y. jury recently convicted a drunk driver of murder for killing two people in a head-on collision. The district attorney who brought the charges had been elected on a “take no prisoners” approach to drunk drivers.
Was this too tough a penalty? Not according to the mother of one of the female victims. She used no euphemisms in describing the damage done. “As I crawled out of the car, the only thing that was left of Kate was her head. This was murder and no different from carrying a loaded gun around, pointing it at people and having a few shots go off killing them.” And the prosecutor made no bones about how she will act in dealing with drunken driving deaths. “We hope that his verdict sends a message that if you drink and drive and kill somebody, you will be prosecuted for murder.”
The good news out of Louisiana is that the tide to get tougher on drunk drivers may be turning. Just this week, several new convictions offered hopes of tougher crackdowns on those who irresponsibly drink and drive.
Baton Rouge Judge Lou Daniel took a hard line on a high profile DWI case a few days ago. A retired Air Force colonel with a good reputation and no prior convictions rear ended and killed two teenagers while intoxicated. The judge sentenced him to two years in jail and one additional year of home confinement, then active probation for five years.
And kudos to Shreveport district Judge Ramona Emanual, a 16 year veteran on the bench. I visited with her at length this week about her decision to give a life sentence to a fourth-offense habitual offender, who hit and killed a 15 year old while driving drunk, then dumped the body on a Shreveport street. Judge Emanual made no bones about the fact than any sentence other than life would lessen the seriousness of this terrible crime.
For far too long, having a few drinks then driving home was no big deal in Louisiana. To many drivers, it is still a normal way of life. Hopefully, much stiffer sentences handed down by tough Louisiana judges will go a long way to reducing too many pointless and unwarranted deaths.
“Yeah, I know some people are against drunk driving, and I call those people ‘the cops.’ But you know, sometimes you’ve got no choice; those kids gotta get to school.”
Peace and Justice
Jim Brown’s weekly column appears in numerous newspapers and websites throughout the south. To read past columns going back to 2002, go to www.jimbrownla.com.