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June 10, 2016

Should I really be too troubled by a Texas life sentence (with parole eligibility in 30 years) for nine-time drunk driver?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this New York Times piece headlined "He Had 8 Convictions for Driving Drunk. On His 9th, He Got Life." Here are the details:

The first eight convictions for driving while intoxicated didn’t stop Donald Middleton of Houston from sliding behind the wheel and getting his ninth conviction. This time, the judge had had enough.

When Mr. Middleton, 56, faced Judge Kathleen Hamilton of the 359th District Court in Texas on Tuesday, she sentenced him to life in prison. He won’t be eligible for parole for 30 years.

Such a harsh sentence is uncommon for drunken-driving convictions, which often lead to temporary license suspensions and prison stays that allow repeat offenders to return to the road. In Mr. Middleton’s case, he still had a valid driver’s license, despite the eight convictions. Mr. Middleton’s case raises the question: How many times does someone have to be caught driving drunk before he or she can no longer legally drive?

He was arrested in May 2015 after he turned into the wrong lane and collided head-on with a vehicle driven by a 16-year-old who was on the way home from work at a grocery store. Mr. Middleton ran into a nearby convenience store and repeatedly asked a clerk to hide him, prosecutors said. He had a blood-alcohol level of 0.184, more than twice the legal limit, 0.08, according to Justin Fowles, a Montgomery County assistant district attorney. Mr. Middleton pleaded guilty to driving while intoxicated last May and has been in jail since.

The teenager, Joshua Hayden, was not injured, but his father, Rowdy Hayden, said in a telephone interview that he appreciated the judge’s harsh sentence. “It angers me, as a father, that this individual skirted the justice system eight times and was still out here endangering our citizens on the roadway by drinking and driving,” said Mr. Hayden, who is a police constable in Montgomery County. “His proven track record showed he was going to continue to drink and drive. And who knows, the next time he may have killed someone.”

Mr. Middleton had four previous stints in prison for driving while intoxicated. His eighth conviction, in 2008, involved rear-ending a car with several people inside; they sustained minor injuries. Mr. Middleton fell out of the car and was unable to stand, Mr. Fowles said.

The conviction from that episode led to a 13-year prison sentence, of which he served four years. After the most recent conviction, he was classified as a habitual offender, which enabled the longer sentence. “He had proven to us that he can’t be trusted with his own freedom, that he’s a danger to our community and that the best thing for everyone else’s safety on the roadways is for him to never be able to drive again,” Mr. Fowles said in a telephone interview.

Rules for stopping habitual drunken drivers vary wildly by state, but repeat offenders tend to get multiple extra chances. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that one in three people arrested on drunken-driving charges are repeat offenders. In Minnesota, a 61-year-old man was released from prison last year after a five-year stay for his 27th conviction related to drunken driving. In Pennsylvania, one man was arrested five times in less than a year, but never lost his driver’s license or served more than 10 days in jail....

J. T. Griffin, the chief government affairs officer for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said the organization had focused on promoting ignition interlock devices, which require anyone convicted of drunken driving to pass a breathalyzer test before starting a car. Twenty-seven states have laws requiring them, including New York, he said. Suspending licenses can be ineffective when many people continue to drive without a valid license, he said.

“We believe in going after D.U.I. the first time, not waiting for the second or third or fourth offense,” Mr. Griffin said. “The first time is unacceptable. And nine times is just ridiculous.”

June 10, 2016 at 11:08 AM | Permalink


Lots of concerns in the case.

How does somebody with eight prior DWI convictions have a valid license? (Not sure that being suspended would have stopped him from driving, but it's absurd that he had a valid license.)

If he was on parole on a thirteen-year sentence, what parole conditions did he have? (Again, there should have been some restrictions on him driving -- at least an ignition interlock -- and some restrictions on his drinking. While such conditions would not necessarily have prevented the new offense -- and he might have had such conditions -- they would at least represent reasonable steps to make it more difficult for him to commit a new offense.)

Even if the justice system failed to do enough to prevent Middleton from drinking and driving, at some point, enough is enough. Since Middleton can't stop himself from drinking and driving and whatever steps Texas has taken to get him to stop have failed, it is not unreasonable for the government to protect its citizens by placing him in the one place where it knows that he will never drink and drive again.

Posted by: tmm | Jun 10, 2016 11:18:44 AM

Less so given his age ... is there some sort of medical exception here or would having a debilitating stroke at 70 just mean he will continue in medical prison? That sort of thing troubles me -- not sure there is a point in keeping the guy in prison until his mid-80s.

If the guy was 35, it would be more troubling.

Posted by: Joe | Jun 10, 2016 11:19:57 AM

Now, if we could only get the Obama Administration to deport alien drunk drivers and punish them harshly if they return to the USA.

This sentence is fine.

Posted by: federalist | Jun 10, 2016 11:38:22 AM

Yes, I think we should be disturbed because if a person has committed his 5th or 8th or 13th offense it is an indication that we as a society have failed. We are using the judicial system as "the final solution". Why not put the legislature in prison for their lack of funding for mental health care? Why no put them in jail for their lack of funding of substance abuse programs? It would be one thing if we could collectively look in the mirror and say "it's just this guy, we did everything we could." But we can't do that with a straight face because we do little for substance abuser outside criminalizing the behavior.

Posted by: Daniel | Jun 10, 2016 1:02:59 PM

Daniel, I can't speak for Texas. In my state, he would have been suspended for his first dwi and could not get his license back before being screened for treatment. For his second and third offense, he would have probably been ordered to do outpatient treatment. For his fourth and fifth offenses, he would have done treatment inside prison.

I do not know of a single treatment provider that believes that you can force alcoholics to stop drinking. You can merely offer them the opportunity to participate in treatment and hope that they will take advantage of it. At some point, the refusal of a defendant to admit that he can't control his drinking and the refusal to call a cab when he has been drinking rests on the defendant.

Posted by: tmm | Jun 10, 2016 2:25:23 PM

In my home state of Kentucky, it takes 4 DUIs to reach the felony level, with a possible 5 year prison sentence. This year, however, the Legislature doubled the "look back" period for counting DUIs to 10 years from 5 years. A test case pending in Fayette Circuit Court is challenging the new 10-year look back period under several theories, including the Ex Post Facto clause and whether it violates the notice/warning requirements from the prior DUI guiltys under Boykin v. Alabama.
I have followed several unusual DUI cases in recent years. In one New Jersey case, a Judge imposed the first-ever habitual offender life sentence (with parole possible after 15 years) on a 57 year old many who had caused 6 serious car wrecks while drunk and had received 23 DUI convictions.
In a Michigan case from about 8 years ago, a woman had previously served 1 year in prison for a 1991 DUI vehicular homicide. In 2009, she killed a second person while driving drunk, and the Judge sentenced her to "only" 14 years for vehicular homicide while DUI.
When I lived and practiced law in Atlanta circa 1993 or 1994, the Atlanta "Constitution and Journal" ran a multi-page Sunday investigative story on Georgia DUIs. A few hundred drivers have been 10 and 15 DUIs. And then there was a single man who had had 23 DUIs and had just been released from prison after serving 5 years. Because the maximum suspension period was then also 5 years, he qualified for and received a new Driver's License following his release from prison. None of the (angry) readers thought that any man with 23 DUIs should ever drive again.

Posted by: Jim Gormley | Jun 10, 2016 2:38:31 PM

Give him time served. Put a hand cuff on left hand attached to a device which tracks his location. It the device goes above ten miles per hour he is not on a bike. If he gets caught driving while revoked then take him to the border and send him over. Canada would be fine.

Posted by: BarkinDog | Jun 11, 2016 2:36:30 PM

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