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System, psychology combine to allow drivers to get repeated DWI charges

Photo provided by staff
Friday, April 18, 2014 - 7:00am

For the second time in a month, a local driver has been arrested with a significant number of DWI charges, prompting lots of people to ask how someone with several DWIs on their record can continue to drive.

Lee Easley, 29, was arrested Wednesday and charged with driving while intoxicated for the sixth time. In March, James Haynes, Jr. of Clinton was arrested for DWI for the seventh time.

Per Louisiana law, DWI is a misdemeanor for the first and second convictions, but a felony beyond that.

"There's a pattern with third offense DWIs," said Asheba Brown, a court monitoring project supervisor for MADD.

Penalties increase each time up to a fourth conviction, with comes with a jail term of up to 30 years.

Sometimes, based on the evidence of the case, prosecutors will accept a plea of reckless driving instead of DWI. It is a lesser sentence, but easier to prove. Advocates like Brown believe it makes drivers less afraid of the escalating penalties that come with multiple DWIs.

"They don't take it seriously," she claimed. "They don't look at driving while intoxicated to be a crime."

Even if one does not spend much time in jail, a driver who gets a DWI will have his/her license suspended, from 90 days for a first conviction to two years for a fourth.

"But they're getting behind the wheel whether their license is suspended or not," Brown noted. "They don't care. Their thing is: 'my license is suspended, but I still have to get to work, or I still have to live,' so they're still driving."

The state legislature is debating tougher penalties for drunk drivers, especially those with a very high blood-alcohol level. But Brown believes drivers will still take the risk, and not think there is a problem until it is too late.

"'I'm okay, I can make it home,'" she said of a drunk driver's mindset. "And sometimes, you may make it home. But another person may not make it home because you chose to make that decision to drink and drive."

According to MADD, drunk driving deaths have decreased by 40 percent since 2007, when the law was changed to force many offenders to install ignition interlock devices on their vehicles. Law enforcement has also increased the number of checkpoints sobriety operations in recent years.

But most drunk drivers go unnoticed. The average first-time offender will drive drunk 80 times before finally being pulled over.

Brown spends much of her time in court, watching cases involving drivers who have multiple previous DWI charges and convictions. She describes her job as one of prevention, to make sure drunk drivers do not claim any more lives.

"Don't get behind the wheel if you're intoxicated," she stated. "You can call a cab, or you can call a friend, or you can call a family member. But to reduce drunk driving, and to [stop] people from dying from drunk driving, it's: don't drink and drive!" 

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