Louisiana has always been a “free and easy” state when it comes to drinkingand driving. Visitors are dumbfounded when 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.
Cracking down on repeating drunk drivers is about to change. At least in St. Charles Parish. The good news is that Sheriff Greg Champagne and District Attorney Joel Chaisson will begin using this rarely enforced seizure law to confiscate vehicles driven by habitual drunk drivers. Hopefully, other Louisiana sheriffs and district attorneys will follow suit.
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 andhaving 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.”
Being tolerant of drunk driving is a key factor of high insurance rates in Louisiana. Hopefully, sheriffs and district attorneys will use the tools at their disposal to get these habitual DWIs off the road. Peace and Justice
Jim Brown’s syndicated column appears each week in numerous newspapers throughout the nation and on websites worldwide. You can read all his past columns and see continuing updates at http://www.jimbrownusa.com.