Around Acadiana

Nov 14, 2013 10:43 PM by Erin Steuber

OWI's: The Multiple Offender

You would think it's common sense, don't drink and drive. But so many in Acadiana haven't learned their lesson and continue getting behind the wheel. We're constantly asked, why they're given the opportunity to do it again.
We found out through public records requests, in a three year period, 80 people went to city court for their second OWI arrest. Of those, nearly 70 percent were only charged with two, first offense OWI's, instead of a second offense OWI, which gets your license suspended for a longer period of time. We also figured out thirteen of these suspects were arrested twice in the same month for drinking and driving.
So why? Why are repeat offenders getting back on the road without, in some of the victim's minds, paying the price for their first offense?
The statistics are staggering, one in seven people sentenced in city court are arrested as repeat offenders.
"A person might have multiple arrests but on their driving record; it shows no conviction, so unless theirs proof of a conviction it means nothing," said Judge Douglas Saloom.
But it can be a battle to obtain records, even from other parishes in Louisiana.
"Some of them don't have very good minute entries. Some of these jurisdictions, all they want is fine money, and they don't care what happens to their record," said Lafayette District Attorney Mike Harson. "They might report the conviction, but they're not going to be worried about the niceties of the convictions."
The simple answer, a database, something that, despite the available technology, has never been put in place. You'll recall back in August, a KATC investigation revealed Tyson Dupuis was able to plead to a first offense OWI, twice, because of overlooked court records. He would later be behind the wheel, causing an accident that killed 18-year-old Mitchell Romero. Being charged with a second offense OWI wouldn't have prevented the accident, because Dupuis would have been eligible to drive, but it's an example of why a database is so desperately needed.
"If you want some kind of uniformity you're going to have to do something on a national level," said Harson. "Because no state has the authority to tell any other state how to run their business, or what they have to do."
But a database would not solve everything. Problems also arise when offenders are arrested multiple times, less than a year apart.
"But if the original charge does not result in a conviction than it can not be used to enhance a penalty," said Saloom.
That means if your first offense OWI is pending, you can't be charged with a second. But that doesn't mean you get the opportunity to plead to a second offense if arrested a third time, says Saloom.
"Now understand if you plead to two, first OWI's, your next ones a third. It's not a step ladder," said Saloom.
A third offense, or higher, is a felony carrying mandatory jail time, fines, rehab, probation and community service. And depending on the interpretation of the law, OWI offenders may never face life in prison, even under the repeat offender provision.
"If he's a second, fourth then he's a fifth. And a fifth is covered under the same provisions as the fourth because it says fourth, or subsequent offense. So once you get to fourth offense, or higher, the penaltys essentially remains the same; Up to 30 years in prison," said Harson.
But rather than simply locking up these offenders in the beginning, Judge Saloom believes in solving the problem.
"Sentencing is a balance between punishment and rehabilitation," said Saloom. "When a person has shown they do not want to be put through rehabilitation, then all it leaves you is punishment. If I don't take the time to do what I think is right, how can i expect you to do it right?"
In addition to pushing for a database, Judge Saloom is working with lawmakers to simplify the OWI laws. His hope is to make punishment and enforcement easier to understand.

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