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June 7, 2009

"Some Coloradans drive until they kill"

This title of this post is the headline of this long Denver Post article that spotlights some of the reasons why I am not confident that society's current sentencing and punishment schemes for drunk driving are sound.  Here are excerpts from the piece:

Richard Strock was arrested for drunken driving 18 times before he killed anyone. In his 19th case, his 63-year-old ex-wife was thrown into the windshield and died....

A Denver Post examination of 195 vehicular homicide-DUI cases since 2005 found that at least 30 percent of the defendants had other drunken-driving cases.  Twenty-two drivers had multiple DUI arrests before they killed people.

Three picked up new drunken-driving charges after killing people while under the influence.  One was arrested for driving drunk the day after he ran a red light and killed a woman.  "That's the hardest part about these DUI offenders — especially the repeat offenders, as we describe them — they're ticking time bombs," said Adams County District Attorney Don Quick....

"You look at any state in the union, and this is a major, major cause of death," said state Rep. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, who co-sponsored a 2007 bill to create a felony DUI statute in Colorado. "We should be providing safe highways for the citizens of the state, and we need to get serious about it."...

Unlike most states, Colorado has no felony law for the third, fourth or 10th drunken-driving offense. A habitual traffic offender who drives drunk with a revoked license can face up to 18 months in prison on a low-level felony charge.   And there are 53,201 people who have three or more drunken-driving offenses in Colorado, according to Division of Motor Vehicle records provided to The Post.  Fifty-one have 10 or more drunken-driving cases in Colorado.

Quick said he has noticed a growing courtroom reluctance to impose jail time even for multiple drunken-driving offenses.  "Whether it's jail overcrowding or a shift in philosophy on sentencing, I can't tell you why," he said.  He finds this trend troubling.  With persistent drunken drivers, "we've tried the treatment model and it's not working," he said.  When somebody dies, "it doesn't matter that the person used a car rather than a gun."

Some legislators say Colorado needs a felony law to stop persistent drunken drivers before they kill people.  "We slap them just as hard on the wrist for their fifth as we did for the first," said state Rep. Steve King, R-Grand Junction.  "Granted, they're going to pay more money, but that's not going to keep them from driving. They need to go to jail."

But previous efforts to pass such a law have been stopped by cost estimates and the reality of overcrowded prisons. And "the thing about jail is they will still get out and they will still drive, if that's what they do," said Rep. Beth McCann, D-Denver. "So we really have to look at some way to prevent them from driving."

As I have suggested in this prior post, I think technology in the form of ignition-interlock devices (which require drivers to blow into a tube that checks BAC) might be a viable way to try to prevent drunk drivers from being such a menace on the road.  I have seen reports that ignition interlock laws and punishment are effective at reducing alcohol-related accidents, and thus I'd like to see much greater use of this technology (or others) to help deal with the loader driver or a car who can often be even more dangerous than a loaded gun. 

Some related posts on sentencing drunk drivers:

June 7, 2009 at 08:09 AM | Permalink


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It looks like New Mexico has done a very good job reducing drunk driving fatalities. Other states should follow its lead. The federal government could help too. Drunk driving should be a deportable offense in all cases, and a person being found in US after being deported for DD should spend at least 5 years in jail.

Posted by: federalist | Jun 7, 2009 9:47:04 AM

I do have to wonder how effective such measures would be with someone who was caught 18 times previously. Other than just removing such an offender from the streets someone who is bound and determined to drive is going to, even if they have to get someone else to do the blowing.

I'm somewhat surprised that a market for compressed air cans hasn't developed to fill exactly such a niche. Although given the few habitual drunks I know, they wouldn't be very reliable about buying such a product, they would use the last few dollars needed for the can for booze instead.

Makes me glad I own a liquor store instead of a bar. I've only had a few people come in already intoxicated over the last four years.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Jun 7, 2009 9:54:25 AM

The article shows lawyer incompetence and the lawyer mistake made, ending status crime.

Character, based on prior crime can help with accuracy. Incapacitate the aggressive, impulsive, unethical driver only. Leave alone the people who had a glass of wine at dinner. Aggressive drunk drivers kill as many people as murderers. Yet the drunk driver has excellent protection of the lawyer.

About 5% of drivers have an impairing, intoxicating substance in them at any time of day. The overwhelming majority do not have an accident.

Stopping the dangerous, leaving alone the not dangerous is beyond the ability of the lawyer.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jun 7, 2009 10:51:52 AM

Compressed air won't do the trick. The various interlock models have features which can detect the differences between human breath and compressed air. I believe some examples of such would be temperature sensors, humidity sensors, and blowing into the device followed by a short sucking, or humming during the blowing period. In my jurisdiction, a big culprit in defeating the interlock device is to have the driver's child do the blowing. I can imagine with the rapid advances in technology combined with the incredible explosion of money soon to be made off of interlocks due to the expansion of the market, we will see cameras attached to the interlock devices within the near future.

Posted by: Mark#1 | Jun 7, 2009 1:14:13 PM

Just what more does this guy have to do to prove that he cannot be trusted with freedom and therefore, for the safety of the rest of the world, is going to have to stay locked up?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jun 7, 2009 2:09:43 PM

Maybe long prison sentences are the solution, but one of the lead characters of HBO's OZ was sentenced for a drunk driving homicide. Many of the commentators there claim it is an accurate depiction of prison life, and if so, prison does not protect society like many think it does. This is another crime that should be handed over to the Center for Disease Control. Let them find a real evidence-based solutions.

Posted by: Anon | Jun 7, 2009 2:47:49 PM

Bill. Did you even read the article? No one thinks this guy can handle freedom. That's only half the issue. The other issue is cost. People may not like what he does with freedom, but people don't want to pay to have him locked up all the time either. That's the rub.

Posted by: Daniel | Jun 7, 2009 2:50:43 PM

Daniel -- What dollar figure would you place on the life he took? What dollar figure should society place on it? Under what standards would you calculate the answers?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jun 7, 2009 7:21:44 PM

The number of people with three or more DUIs in Colorado is about 53,000. The number of deaths caused by people with prior DUIs in Colorado in a three year period was 59, of whom just one had ten or more DUIs (out of 51 people with ten or more DUis in Colorado).

There are about 23,000 in state prison in Colorado for all offenses combined. Putting everyone in the state in prison for a long term would be cost prohibitive. Imprisoning everyone with multiple DUIs for a year would cost more than $1 billion, and wouldn't necessarily prevent all that much recidivism, it might even increase recidivism by reducing the stability of these people's lives leading to devil may care attitudes and a return to alcohol problems. Colorado prisons are not known for their quality substance abuse program successes.

Merely suspending or revoking licenses wasn't sufficient, however. More than 40% of vehicular homicide drivers with prior DUIs had revoked licenses. Technological restraints on cars only work if someone drive's their own vehicle, and so also might not work.

Colorado does have felony punishments for people who have multiple DUIS and drive with suspended or revoked licenses, although it is the lowest grade felony offense, and those do appear to be the people who pose the highest risk. But, again it is hard to tell how much that would cost and whether it would work.

It might be both more effective and less expensive to require repeat DUI offenders who drive with a suspended or revoked license to have their hands tattooed in a way that indicates that they aren't allowed to be served or sold alcohol, or to drive a car, ever (at their expense), and then to have them report to a probation officer once of month to confirm that it has not been removed. Such a tattoo might also be a legal authorization similar to being on probation or parole for an immediate breathalyzer test without consent at the scene of any traffic stop even if no DUI offense was suspected, and would also provide probable cause for an immediate driving with a revoked license arrest, even if the person was using an alias or fake ID.

A prominent facial tattoo might follow for those who drink and drive again after receiving a hand tattoo, something that would warn anyone allowing the individual to use their car or have a drink, no matter how careless the person negligently entrutsing the person with a car or alcoholic drink was, and something that would probably prompt 911 calls from passing drivers.

Tattoos would be a permanent serious sanction. But, this would be far less severe than historical corporal punishments like chopping off the hands of thieves or many lashings or castration, but might have more preventative effect than even moderately long prison sentences. It probably wouldn't be quite a much of a bar to gainful employment or lifetime income as some kind of a felony record or a period of imprisonment in state prison. It would also be thoeretically reversable with laser tattoo removal surgery in a case of a miscarriage of justice in the criminal justice proccess.

While it would be a shaming punishment as well, it would be a rather restrained one at a first tattoo offense level. By avoiding places where alcohol is served and keeping your hands in your pockets or in gloves, someone with a hand tattoo could avoid casual detection. The social shame risks involved also might have more impact on typical DUI offenders than the possibility of some time in prison, particularly for those who have already served brief jail terms and aren't quite as scared by the concept of incarceration, per se.

Posted by: ohwilleke | Jun 8, 2009 8:35:01 PM

Also FYI, Don Quick, quoted in the story, is expected by many to be the Democratic candidate for Colorado Attorney General in 2010.

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Posted by: tattooremoval2 | Mar 22, 2010 3:07:29 PM

Colorado's problem starts at 16th and Blake and works it's way towards Larimer Square from there. Way Too many bars and way too many drunk people downtown on the weekends. Don't promote plying citizens with alcohol to generate revenue on both ends of the problem and act like an innocent party when someone gets hurt. I'm not a huge fan of Denver policy in that respect.
Tattoo Fade

Posted by: Jimmy | Apr 24, 2010 10:51:37 PM

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