Opinion | Morgan Liddick: Harsher penalities needed for repeat DUI offenders
Special to the Daily
On the evening of Sept. 28, David Bunn careened his truck through an intersection into a red Mustang, killing 17-year-old Lyneah Dyke and seriously injuring two others. He was drunk. So were 132 others involved in fatal car crashes in Colorado during the past year.
An additional 25,000 drunk drivers were arrested, fortunately before killing anyone. According to Colorado State Patrol records, one in three of those arrested had been so before, the majority on multiple occasions. Twenty-five percent of Colorado drivers charged with drunk driving in the last year never had a license or were arrested while their license was under suspension or revoked. Over 20 percent of unlicensed drivers were denied driving privileges due to earlier drunk driving convictions. Ladies and gentlemen, this is a problem.
In the 2013 session of the state Legislature, Rep. Mark Waller introduced HB 1214, which would have made a third DUI in seven years a felony charge at the prosecutor’s discretion; the fourth such arrest would be an automatic felony. It received no sponsors in the Senate and, after acrimonious debate, it was sent to the Appropriations Committee where it died when the session timed-out.
There was great rejoicing in the criminal defense community. Typical of the righteous giddiness was commentary from the ACLU’s Denise Maes: “There’s a lot more the state can do to curtail drunk driving as opposed to criminalizing the issue,” she chided, citing as alternatives increased emphasis on treatment, more checkpoints intended to identify drunk drivers before they can harm anyone, targeted investigations aimed at bars, and so forth. Her comments and her tone were echoed by dozens of websites devoted to defending people arrested for driving drunk.
Treatment? By all means. More checkpoints? Sure. Public education, OK. And if we were talking only about teenagers, this might be sufficient. We all know young people are impulsive; they make mistakes, and we hope they aren’t fatal — either for themselves or others. But they are (mostly) amenable to correction through the means aforementioned, and others. Unfortunately we aren’t only talking about them. And when we’re dealing with people who will pour themselves three-sheets-to-the-wind drunk behind the wheel of an automobile time after time, license or no, arrest after arrest, until a fatality forces their removal from the road, these measures will not serve.
This is not a question of “fairness;” impairment by ingestion of alcohol or drugs is real, measurable and not a function of race, creed or color. It is not unjust or disproportionate; after four failures in seven years to recognize that drunk driving is a threat not only to your well-being, but to that of others, taking action is not only reasonable, it is probably well past due.
That is exactly what Rep. Waller’s bill proposed: giving the general public the ability to protect itself from the sociopath that is the habitual drunk driver. Sen. Mary Hodge, chairperson of Colorado’s Senate Appropriations Committee, sees that as inappropriate. As she put it, “I think more emphasis needs to be put on addressing the disease of alcoholism and not us locking people up.” Sen. Pat Steadman, who also voted against the measure, agreed. Neither legislator speculated on what should be done with those who don’t feel like having their dangerous behavior “addressed.”
So thanks to the 2013-14 Democrat-dominated Legislature, Colorado is now one of only five states in the country that does not impose a felony conviction for multiple DUI arrests within a given period of time. Instead, our big-hearted politicians allow drunk drivers to continue to roll the homicide dice after five, eight, 16 arrests. A little jail time, a few empty promises, a couple undertakings and … on the road again with Jim Beam riding shotgun.
Rep. Waller’s bill is bound to be re-introduced, and this time it deserves to pass. If our solons were really interested in having an effect, they might even consider other, additional options. How about confiscating the auto of a drunk driver with more than three DUI arrests in the preceding seven years? Taking the license apparently doesn’t work, but removing the means to drive while drunk might. Doing this would doubtless result in howls about inconvenience and complaints about hard-heartedness. When hearing them, we should think about Lyneah Dyke. While you’re at it, call Millie Hammer and Randy Baumgardner and tell them to remember her as well.
And in the name of all that’s good this time of year, if celebration involves those “adult beverages,” bum a ride from a sober friend. Better a nuisance than a murderer, don’t you think?
Morgan Liddick writes a weekly column for the Summit Daily News.
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