Late last year, we reported on a Minnesota man who was facing his 28th DWI and discussed the need for and effectiveness of harsher DWI legislation. Discussion involved mandatory revocation of one’s driver’s license after five DWI convictions.
More recently, however, some states have increased criminal sanctions for habitual DWI offenders—including life prison sentences—and this begs the question of whether some penalties are too harsh.
Texas faces numerous habitual DWI offenders
In Texas, a judge sentenced a habitual drunk driver to life in prison for his ninth conviction. The defendant—a 54-year-old man—struck another vehicle while weaving through several lanes of traffic and injured the driver. At the time of the accident, the intoxicated motorist had a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .32—four times Texas’ legal limit.
The judge justified his sentence by asserting that the defendant deliberately refused to change his life and continued to drive drunk. By taking him off the streets permanently, the defendant will not have the opportunity to injure—or subsequently kill—someone else. He will be eligible for parole in five years depending on his behavior in prison.
As would be expected, there was outrage that the sentence was too harsh, and many suggested that the court should have considered the defendant’s struggle with alcoholism. Whereas alcoholism is increasingly seen as a medical issue, the judge argued that the defendant should have been more proactive in attempting to seek help. According to the district attorney on the case, by the ninth conviction, a reasonable person would have found some way to not get behind the wheel while drunk.
Also in Texas, a 63-year-old man was given a life sentence for his 12th DWI conviction when he crashed into a stop sign near a local elementary school while driving with a BAC of .27 and on parole for a previous 20-year sentence. Another 62-year-old man with 11 prior DWIs was also sentenced to life in prison after driving with a BAC over four times the legal limit and having removed his electronic ankle monitor while out on bail.
In Texas, repeat DWI offenders comprise nearly five percent of all state prison inmates, with 22 percent of repeat offenders receiving sentences longer than ten years. Hundreds more face more than 40 years or even life sentences.
DWI fatality in Louisiana
Down south, a woman was sentenced to 20 years in prison after pleading guilty to a fatal drunk driving accident that killed a Mississippi father of seven. In this case, it was the 28-year-old defendant’s third DWI in a mere nine months.
The defendant rear-ended the victim’s truck back in March 2017 on Louisiana’s Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, causing an aluminum guardrail to smash through the truck’s rear window, impaling the 37-year-old victim. A passenger in the truck was also injured; however, the defendant was not.
At the time of the accident, the defendant’s BAC was .216—nearly three times higher than the state’s legal limit. The defendant pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide and related charges, and she was sentenced to 20 years.
The debate rages on
While alcoholism is, indeed, a serious addiction, many lawmakers assert that lengthy periods of incarceration may not be the best allocation of resources for these types of offenders. Those with this orientation argue that rehabilitation is the best course of action—and most effective use of scarce resources—in such cases.
On the other hand, others assert that there comes a time when these dangerous people must be removed from society, especially those whose driver’s licenses have been suspended or revoked, yet they still get behind the wheel. Whereas rehabilitation may be helpful and warranted for a second or third DWI conviction, when defendants are getting their 10th or 20th, a different discussion is, indeed, warranted.