One need only look at the listings of court cases in this newspaper and others to see that current efforts to combat drunken driving have little effect on some people, and part of the problem lies in how our laws are applied.
Of course, every case is different, and every judge has his or her own way of handling DUI cases, but it seems clear that not enough is being done to protect the populace from those who have no respect for the laws and the well-being of others.
Time and again, we see the arrest of people for DUI who already had their driving privileges suspended after a previous conviction for DUI. That kind of arrogant disregard for the law should be punished much more severely than is currently the case, because the level of deterrence clearly is not sufficient.
Several cases around the state that came to our attention recently illustrate the kind of haphazard application of the laws that sends the message that the punishment for failure to comply won’t be all that bad.
In northwestern Pennsylvania, 45-year-old Shawn Little of Pittsfield was sentenced to four years in prison for his fourth drunken driving charge in the last decade. That sounds like a pretty stiff term, until you learn that Little has a total of eight DUI arrests. But, according to an Associated Press report, “only those in the last 10 years are counted” for sentencing purposes. That’s a flaw in the law. Little should have been punished more severely earlier on. It might not have changed his behavior. He might be beyond help. But it certainly would have protected others who had to share the roads with him. We have to think that had Little been indiscriminately firing a gun on the streets eight times over the years, his conduct might have gotten a little more attention from the courts.
Oh, by the way, the last time he was arrested, Little had his two children in the car with him.
A case out of Lancaster County is even more troubling.
Twenty-three-year-old Daniel Mentzer was arrested in December 2012 after officers clocked him going more than 140 mph while drunk. According to the AP, the arresting officer said Mentzer had slurred speech and glassy eyes. Mentzer, according to the report, told police he didn’t know how fast he was going because his speedometer went only to 120 mph, and “my needle was pinned to that point.”
What sort of punishment do you think Mentzer received for getting drunk and turning his vehicle into a potentially deadly weapon? Six months of probation.
The AP story doesn’t indicate this, but Mentzer no doubt also got a stern talking-to from the judge, but we have our doubts as to whether than will have much of a lasting effect.
Then there was the case of the Pittsburgh police officer who was driving drunk and over the speed limit when he got into a motorcycle accident that killed his female passenger. He was sentenced to “alternative housing,” with work release. A life was taken, and this guy won’t spend a single day in jail. That’s wrong.
We have little problem with judges giving first-time offenders, particularly those just over the legal limit, the benefit of the doubt and declining to bring the hammer down on them. It’s OK in that instance to look more toward getting these folks any help they may need. But no such leniency should be afforded to those who have blood-alcohol levels twice the legal limit, or more, or those who repeatedly drive under the influence, particularly if they are driving while under suspension.
In every DUI case, the defendant has made a conscious decision to drink and get behind the wheel. These are premeditated crimes that can have deadly, tragic consequences. Those who commit them should be sentenced accordingly.