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August 14, 2010

"Is Life Sentence Too Harsh For Man Convicted of Ninth DWI?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this new ABC News report on a noteworthy state sentence handed down in Texas this past week. Regular readers will not be surprised to here that my personal answer to this question is a resounding NO, especially given that this is a life WITH parole eligibility in as little as five years. Here are the details:

The ninth conviction was the breaking point for one Texas judge who earlier this week sentenced a habitual drunken driver to life in prison.

Bobby Stovall, 54, was driving his truck in Round Rock, Texas, in early July when he weaved through several lanes of traffic and hit another vehicle, injuring the driver. It was later determined that Stovall had a blood alcohol concentration of .32, four times the legal limit in Texas.

And while that DWI was certainly enough to get Stovall in trouble with the law, when the judge found out the defendant had eight prior DWI convictions across several different counties in Texas, he ordered up a life sentence for Stovall.

"This is someone who very deliberately has refused to make changes and continued to get drunk and get in a car and before he kills someone we decided to put him away," said Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley.

Bradley said that in addition to the multiple DWI convictions , Stovall also had a extensive rap sheet for other crimes, including burglary, credit card abuse and supplying alcohol to a minor. "He basically walked through the penal code for the past twenty years without any regard for safety or society," said Bradley. "In every single one of his cases he had an opportunity to change."

But some argue that Stovall's sentence was too harsh and that the court should have considered his struggle with alcoholism. "This guy has a disease, he is an alcoholic and this isn't the kind of situation where he's acting with malice to hurt people," said Lawrence Taylor, a DUI lawyer and author of "Drunk Driving Defense."

"He has a serious problem and I hope the days are past where we think alcoholism is something you choose," said Taylor. Taylor said that he does not agree with the judge's sentencing of Stovall and would have preferred more "rehabilitation" than "ending his life." "You're essentially doing just that, ending this man's life, at the expense of taxpayers," he said.

But Bradley says that it's better to lock up a man like Stovall -- and prevent him from hurting someone in the future -- than give him yet another chance. "I think that the ninth time you get caught and punished for [drunken driving] you would have found some way of not getting in that car," said Bradley....

"If this guy was using a shotgun to shoot lights randomly around his neighborhood I doubt we'd be [getting criticized] for the sentencing," he said. "In this case he's simply using his truck as his weapon."

Stovall would be eligible for parole in five years, but depending on his conduct in prison and other factors, that could be as long as 10 to 15 years.

Even though I am prepared to accept the notion that alcoholism is a disease, I do not think this fact make this long sentencing misguided.  Those who suffer from alcoholism may not have a choice as to drinking, but they surely have a choice concerning whether to get behind the wheel while drunk.  And Bobby Stovall obviously has continued to choose to put himself in a situation in which he makes choices about driving that put many of his fellow citizens at great risk.

The fact that Stovall will be eligible for parole in five years makes the "life sentence" in this case seem especially reasonable.  I assume he will get out early if and when he makes progess battling alcoholism, and it seems that he has had no luck wage this battle on his own outside of the prison setting.

August 14, 2010 at 11:47 AM | Permalink

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Comments

From what I've read about the Texas parole system I wouldn't be so sure he'll be getting out any time soon.

As for the sentence I have to agree. He has been given plenty of opportunity to reform his behavior to what society expects. Likely he has been ordered into treatment of some form in the past. At this point it is time that society protect itself from such irresponsibility by separating this menace from those who would obey the law.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Aug 14, 2010 1:02:37 PM

This is a good sentence. It is likely to save his life, not just from car crashes, but also from organ destruction by alcohol. The return on investment to the taxpayer is excellent if the sentence prevents one car crash a year. If released, he should go to a less supervised setting, but not home. I will admit, this is a case where judge sentencing discretion serves the public interest and the individual interests of the defendant.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Aug 14, 2010 1:42:27 PM

"Those who suffer from alcoholism may not have a choice as to drinking, but they surely have a choice concerning whether to get behind the wheel while drunk."

Agree on all points professor and with Mr. Haetir, but in your statement above I wonder, if after giving in to the urge to drink that they can't control, they have any ability to make a rational decision regarding anything else including getting behind the wheel?
Very doubtfull I would guess.

Posted by: Just Wondering | Aug 14, 2010 1:50:07 PM

Is it too harsh compared to a DUI vehicular manslaughter? How soon is someone eligible for parole after getting the max of 15 years? There appears to be a sentencing contradiction between someone who could kill and someone who has.

Texas DWI death ends with 9-year prison sentence

The 9 years is only a portion of the possible 15-year sentence that could have followed the charge.

If public safety is the #1 purpose of government, and it may very well be, then....

1. Everyone submits DNA upon birth or upon any action that could put people at risk, like an application for a driver's license or wedding license or gun permits and so on. It wouldn't be long before the government has everyone's DNA and there is a strong compelling public interest in DNA collection. Nothing else could deter and solve crime as effectively.

2. All cars should come pre-equipped with breathalyzers or perhaps steering wheels are BAC sensitive, like LiLo's ankle bracelet device that detected alcohol in the skin. Guns should have a similar device for the same reason cars should.

3. The oath of office for public officers and employees should be changed from "uphold the Constitution" to "uphold public safety."

Posted by: George | Aug 14, 2010 2:26:00 PM

If one stops all cars in the afternoon, about 10% of drivers will be legally drunk. Blood alcohol level is a necessary but insufficient condition to dangerous driving, obviously. Or, 1 of 10 drivers would have a crash every afternoon. Drunk driving is short hand for a high blood alcohol level and for irresponsible dangerous style of driving. About half of the traffic deaths or 20,000, are associated with high blood alcohol levels. What the lawyer will not say is that his client, the drunk driver, is also an aggressive, fearless, selfish individual, and should be detained as much for those traits as for his blood alcohol level. This is the same dude who is both murderer and murder victim, with half of each being legally intoxicated. Same with suicide, with half being legally intoxicated on something. It is time to make this status a crime itself, before the public and before the defendant is hurt, and to incapacitate him at the youngest age possible.

One is not defending liberty by defending this type of person. Because loosing one is automatically taking liberty away from countless other innocent members of the public, especially family members of the defendant. The left has chosen to side with evil, to protect it, to immunize it. Why? Evil generates lawyer fees, and victims generate nothing. May rot.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Aug 15, 2010 12:30:19 AM

George, there are plenty of DWI deaths in Texas that result in probation, often with support from the victims' families. This life sentence is more about a grandstanding DA who likes to get his name in the papers (the article is based on his press release). The disparate sentencing seems bizarre to those who mostly think about federal guidelines, etc., but when you have actual juries doing the sentencing they're all over the map.

And though I try not to respond to SC, it's hard to let the statement go un-caveated that "About half of the traffic deaths or 20,000, are associated with high blood alcohol levels." In 2008, there were 11,773 "alcohol-related" deaths, not 20,000 (and the NHTSA data caveats that figure by saying alcohol-related doesn't mean the drunk driver was responsible for the accident). Further, 68% of those deaths were the drunk driver themselves. In 2008 the total nationwide who died after being hit by a drunk other than someone they were driving with was 1,871 (another 1,875 passengers died while riding in the drunks' vehicle), out of a nation of 350 million or so.

By contrast, according to this source "Every year in this country, two million patients contract infections in hospitals and well over 100,000 die as a result, more deaths than from AIDS, breast cancer and auto accidents combined." Those folks' families miss them just as much. Their deaths are just as great a tragedy. And they are just as preventable for health workers as drunk driving is for a drunk. According to the source linked above, "there is compelling evidence that nearly all hospital infections are preventable."

So why do people demagogue so much over drunk drivers without calling for years-long punishment for health workers responsible for 50 times the number of preventable deaths? I think it's because every generation needs its witch hunt, some bogeyman to use to scare the public for purposes ultimately unrelated to protecting them. At the moment, DWIs serve that purpose regardless of the actual magnitude of the threat because it's so easy to dramatize individual tragedies.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Aug 15, 2010 7:52:01 AM

Grits: Thank you for being the only one stupid enough to respond.

Do your statistics include dead motorcyclists, pedestrians, and bicyclists, skate boarders, ATV'ers?

Most of the drops in death rates are attributable to better vehicle and medical technology, and not to draconian lawyer oppression. We can agree on that.

Nevertheless, the character of the lawyer client is likely just as important as the blood alcohol level. That character is best and most reliably measured by the repetition of offenses. After 9 DUI's, not only is life justified, but will save the defendant from alcohol caused death by disease. Life is of course an upward deviation from guidelines, and greatly beneficial all around, including to the taxpayer. The emergency room bill for a single prevented accident may be larger than the cost of a year in prison. Good deal for the taxpayer.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Aug 15, 2010 9:25:43 AM

Apart from the obvious technical legalities, what's the effective difference between habitual drunken drivers and:

1. Women who several mornings EVERY week rocket down the highway at ramming speed while applying lipstick and eye shadow?

2. Teen-agers juiced on youthful exuberance and hormones who drive like something's chasing them EVERY time they get behind the wheel?

3. Anybody who texts while driving?

Should all of them be serving life sentences, too? I'll bet the grandstanding DA in Round Rock thinks so.

Posted by: John K | Aug 15, 2010 10:45:17 AM

John: What if each of your characters were stopped nine times for doing so, and did it again?

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Aug 15, 2010 10:50:48 AM

So it's not whether people do dangerous things that matters, it's how many times they've been caught and punished for doing them?

No, Grits was right. Drunken drivers are one of our favorite demons. We haven't yet been sufficiently demagogued to compel us to add dangerous but sober drivers to the list of folks we love to hate.

Posted by: John K | Aug 15, 2010 11:55:36 AM

Grits,

One major difference with the hospital scenario is that many of those folks would have been killed or otherwise seriously effected by whatever put them in the hospital to begin with. Even if the recovery rates for some common type of surgery were only 5%, if the alternative were immediate death, you would see plenty of those operations performed. The outcome has to account for the alternative of doing nothing.

It's one of the reasons that FDA is allowed to approve things like immunosuppressant drugs, which often do more than just knock down the immune system. One drug often used with kidney transplant patients, for instance, has (among its other nasty side effects) of directly causing kidney damage. Yet the drug is approved and is used because the alternative is in fact worse.

I don't see that the same can be said for allowing only sober attentive drivers (barring emergency) behind the wheel if they are on public roads.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Aug 15, 2010 12:41:43 PM

John: The regulation must be validated as safe and effective prior to wide enactment. It must be proven to reduce crashes before being adopted.

Once it has, we are interested in future injuries, less in the past. Repetition is the most reliable to predict future conduct.

That being said, most lawyer rules are gotchas for confiscatory purposes, with safety a mere pretext, an unproven one. Because this rule making of invalid rules is an armed robbery, the makers of these rules should be arrested and executed if they are repeat offenders. To deter their future bogus rule making.

You may try to rebut the rules with data showing applying makeup in the rear view mirror at 70 mph does not cause more crashes. Europeans do not understand our habit of doing everything in the car. For example, German cars get fitted with cupholders only upon being exported to the US. They do not do sex acts at speed, nor even talk on the phone, I guess. We have long distances, spend a lot of time driving, and must multitask.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Aug 15, 2010 2:29:34 PM

soronel i'm going to have to call you on that one and agree with grits! if 100,000 people are being killed in hospitals that shouldn't have died except for mistakes on the part of hospital employees.....someone is comitting a crime.

By your logic there should NEVER be a charge for murder AFTER ALL we're all gonna die sooner or later!

Posted by: rodsmith | Aug 15, 2010 3:11:23 PM

Grits is compelling. Some behavior is easily demagogued. I don't believe that a life sentence for 9 DUIs will prevent drunk driving. Kind of echoing John K.

We have expanded the alarm by using the term - alcohol related deaths - when it does not mean the driver was drunk. It is a statistical fiction used to enact legislation. It is quite helpful when lobbying for a cause to site alarming statistics. Helpful, but not honest.

George also made a point about sentencing. Should a DUI vehicular homicide conviction demand 3 or 4 life terms?

Posted by: beth | Aug 15, 2010 5:39:24 PM

The driver, alcoholic or not, certainly had the ability to make certain choices in his life. I've a neighbor who is a chronic alcoholic. He's had his license pulled (in Chicago) after his third DUI.

To stop himself from getting behind the wheel while tanked, he sold his car. That's a good and effective choice.

Now that he's relocated to FL, he uses taxis. FL, btw, is not the place to find effective public transportation; taxis are about it. My neighbor, though, will not be getting another DUI.

Having been in a couple of accidents caused by drunk drivers, I'm not terribly sympathetic to their ordeal. The laws of Norway, which required a mandatory, lifetime suspension of driving privileges on the first instance of DUI, or even the UK, where you might lose your car upon conviction, are a bit more my style.

Posted by: John | Aug 15, 2010 9:22:32 PM

Beth: You are a lawyer, right? Freebie for the defense bar. Punishment to deter the defendant: proper. Punishment to deter others, unknown to him, committing or not committing future speculative crimes: not proper. That improper motive for the prosecution violates the procedural due process right to a fair trial. And you may be right, there is weak or no evidence punishment deters strangers in the future.

Although no defense lawyer will allow it, defendants should be demanding total e-discovery of the prosecution searching for improper motives of all types. They may have to write their own motions to compel this measure. Then devastate the prosecution, with improper motives, corruption, misuse of government computers, downloading of child porn. Make it a three ring circus.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Aug 15, 2010 10:09:35 PM

"So it's not whether people do dangerous things that matters, it's how many times they've been caught and punished for doing them?"

I tend to agree with your comment. Obviously he hasn't learned his lesson, but that is no reason for a life sentence even if it will be most likely cut short. If he had killed somebody or something else extremely serious obviously this is different. Here in Michigan, the laws against drunk driving are very strict, and major fines and jail times will result no matter what offense it is. This really should be enough, at what point do you stop the increasingly tougher laws? Maybe any drunk driving 3rd + should be life??

Posted by: Michigan Drunk Driving | Aug 16, 2010 11:27:00 AM

How interesting that almost everyone seems satisfied with incarcerating to prevent , as opposed to punish. Makes one wonder when the other forms of preventive detention will come to the fore,hmm? For myself, I must wonder about the old saw: "If you can do it to anybody you can do it to anybody." Paraphrasing I'll leave to you.

Posted by: Throsso | Aug 16, 2010 7:44:28 PM

The real point here is not so much this sentence but the failure of the prior eight sentences. Those who note the defendant has a decease are correct as are those who note the defendant's behavior is dangerous. The criminal justice system needs to be more effective before a defendant reaches a ninth conviction. The is a better way to sentence, know in Michigan as sobriety court, known nationally as dwi/drug court. A recent study in Michigan established that a sentence into a sobriety court was as much as 19 times more effective then a traditional probation sentence. here is the link: http://council.legislature.mi.gov/files/sdtcac/mi_dui_outcome_eval_final_report_0308.pdf

Posted by: Brian MacKenzie | Aug 17, 2010 8:50:54 AM

First of all, I am not a drinker and I do not agree with a drunk getting behind the wheel. No one ever looks at the root of the problem here. We have alcohol being sold legally and extremely taxed and alcohol is an addictive drug. We have the government and the alcohol owners getting rich while selling a drug to the public and getting people addicted to their product so they will buy more. We punish a drug dealer selling illegal addictive drugs to the public because the government has no control over making money. People are still out of control and committing crimes rather they are on illegal drugs or legal alcohol. People have an addiction problem consuming either drug. We want harsh laws to punish the alcoholics that our government has permitted to become a legal addicted drunk. The law states that if you are over the BAC level that you are impaired. If you are impaired, then I highly doubt that you would be able to make a good decision to not get behind a wheel to drive. We are punishing the addict instead of punishing the ones that caused them to be an addict.I would think that since the government and the alcohol distributors are the ones making all the money on this drug and causing people to become addicted so they will buy their drug, that they should be the ones that should be investing in the treatment centers and paying for the overcrowded prisons and jails, court cost, attorney fees, etc. They are the root of the problem. If you don't want addicts behind the wheels then take the alcohol off the market and treat it as if you would treat an illegal drug. I don't see a difference in an illegal drug dealer feeding our children and addictive drug and causing an addict or our government allowing an alcohol distributor to feed people legal alcohol and causing them to become an addict. What I am saying is, it isn't going to matter how many laws we put out to govern drunk drivers, we will always have drunk drivers because our government continues to breed alcoholics. It is an never ending cycle. How many more lives will be destroyed or killed to make another dollar before people wake up and realize that as fast as they complain and asked for stricter laws for driving while intoxicated, our government is adding that many more alcoholics to drink and drive.

Posted by: Donerovan | Feb 12, 2011 1:43:38 AM

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