A recent interesting DWI law-related topic that has been quite prevalent in the news addresses the appropriateness of life prison sentences for repeat DWI offenders.
Sixteen months ago, Houston, Texas resident Donald Middleton was responsible for a head-on collision with a pickup truck at a Montgomery County intersection. Thankfully, the pickup’s teenaged driver—and son of a local constable—was not injured. A post-accident investigation revealed Middleton’s blood alcohol content (BAC) was .184—over twice the legal limit.
This was Middleton’s ninth DWI conviction, and the judge sentenced the 56-year-old to life in prison—a sentence that drew considerable national attention. The earliest Middleton would even be considered for parole would be in 2045. Justifying his sentence, the prosecutor said that it was necessary to prevent Middleton from killing anyone.
Texas has particularly harsh DWI laws. After two misdemeanor DWI convictions, an offender is automatically charged with a felony the third time around. Of course, drunk driving with injuries is already an automatic felony. However, unlike other states such as Minnesota, Texas does not permanently revoke driver’s licenses, even after multiple DWI convictions. Suspensions are permitted for up to two years only. Thus, at the time of Middleton’s latest arrest, he was driving on a valid driver’s license.
Lengthy DWI Sentences
In Texas, repeat DWI offenders account for one out of every twenty inmates in state prisons—over 6,600 inmates today. At a rate of $153 million per year, taxpayers are understandably torn between public safety and corrections costs. Texas Department of Corrections data demonstrate that 22 percent of repeat DWI convictions garner sentences longer than ten years, with a few hundred exceeding 40 years, and 34 of them serving life sentences.
Before Middleton’s conviction, a 64-year-old man was given two life sentences after his tenth DWI conviction, while weeks after Middleton’s case, a 45-year-old man who had, in fact, killed a person while driving drunk pled guilty to his sixth offense and received a 50-year prison sentence. Whereas these lengthy sentences are not appropriate for the majority of DWI offenders, repeat offenders who demonstrate no efforts to reform require removal from society.
Texas is not the only state with long sentences for repeat DWI offenders. Recently, a 37-year-old Santa Ana, California woman received a sentence of 22 years to life for driving while intoxicated when she ran a red light, lost control of her vehicle, and subsequently crashed into a woman and her two young daughters. The six-year-old daughter died at the scene, while the mother and her seven-year-old daughter received treatment for traumatic brain injuries. Following the accident, the suspect fled the scene and was later found to have a BAC of .20.
Arguments against Life Sentences
Opponents of lengthy sentences for DWI offenders argue that new technology like ignition interlock devices (IID) are available to prevent intoxicated motorists from getting behind the wheel; however, there are ways to bypass them such as by having someone else blow into the device or simply driving a vehicle without one. In fact, about three percent of offenders with IIDs are subsequently rearrested for DWI.
In fact, Middleton had an IID in 2009 while he was out on bond. His eighth DWI conviction earned him a 13-year prison sentence, but he was paroled after four years, and the parole board did not require him to install another IID as a condition of his release. According to his sister, Middleton had been sober for two years—and participated in weekly Alcoholics Anonymous meetings—before his 2015 arrest.
Opponents further assert that alcoholism is a serious addiction that would be better treated by rehabilitation and alternatives to long prison sentences. Texas prosecutors agree with seeking treatment for first, second, or third offenders and have since developed felony DWI courts for the habitual offender which strive to keep offenders out of prison by placing them on intensive probation, in counseling, and requiring IID installation. A primary concern is that many habitual DWI offenders may be sentenced for a crime without the requisite intent because of their addiction.