DWI laws, Justice System a Deadly Combination

Drunk driver Taylor Roberts

Drunk driver Taylor Roberts
No matter how you spin or manipulate the statistics, and despite heroic efforts by a number of organizations and agencies, the fact is that drunk driving is still a huge problem. The Centers for Disease Control calculates that intoxicated drivers get behind the wheel no less than 112 million times per year, and that translates to 30 fatalities every day. M.A.D.D. (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) reports that one person dies every 51 minutes due to an alcohol-related crash, while the CDC says there’s one fatality every 48 minutes. The National Highway Safety Administration’s estimate is even more bleak. According to NTSA, more than 16,000 people die in alcohol-related crashes each year, and that translates to one death every 30 minutes.

Tragic as those statistics may be, they are only one-dimensional. Clearly, the drunk driver himself is primarily responsible for his lethal behavior, but sitting alongside him in the metaphorical passenger’s seat are the judges, district attorneys, and legislators who have enabled that behavior. How so? According to M.A.D.D., over one-third of people convicted of drunk driving are repeat offenders. They get caught, get a slap on the wrist, then, after a period of time, they drive drunk again, and again, and again.

Seven years ago the Charlotte Observer reported on something we already knew: DWI sentencing is inconsistent from county to county and from court to court. The Observer’s investigation found that judges in some North Carolina counties convict 90% of drunk drivers, while those in other counties only convict 10%. Overall, our judges acquit about one-third of all drunk drivers. Why the inconsistency? It boils down to a system of guidelines that allows a judge to weigh three factors in every DWI case. These consist of “Mitigating Factors”, “Aggravating Factors”, and “Grossly Aggravating Factors”. If a drunk driver has had an otherwise safe driving record, that’s a mitigating factor that often results in a small fine and a suspended sentence. If the driver has had two or more drunk driving convictions within the past five years, that’s an aggravating factor that sometimes results in a heftier fine and jail time of from 2 days to six months. If the intoxicated driver is operating a vehicle with a revoked license and causes serious injury to another person, that’s a grossly aggravating factor which can carry a prison sentence of up to three years.

And so, while judges weigh three types of factors, six levels of sentencing, acquit one-third of cases, and, in some counties convict only 10% of drunk drivers, the offenders they keep releasing and recycling continue to wreak havoc on society. Meanwhile, in some instances, drunk driving is more of a bargaining chip than a crime, and that brings me to the case of Taylor Roberts.

According to a story in the Winston-Salem Journal, Mr. Roberts appeared in Forsyth County court late last month for driving drunk at high speeds, crashing his car and killing his passenger, Kayla King. Oh yes, and Roberts was driving with a license that had been revoked. The incident occurred last July. If you guessed that Roberts was sentenced to life in prison, guess again. Instead, he reached a plea deal with Assistant District Attorney Matt Breeding and was only convicted of “felony death by motor vehicle”. Judge George Collins then sentenced Roberts to a prison term of from three to five years. But what happened to the drunk driving charge, driving at high speeds, reckless driving, and driving with a revoked license? Those charges were all dismissed as part of the plea deal for a lighter sentence. But why even approve a plea? Because Judge Collins said that Roberts had no criminal record.

First of all, even if Roberts had been an angel up until the time he drove drunk and killed Kayla King, the justice system should have allowed for more prison time. Second, Judge Collins and ADA Breeding likely knew that Roberts was no angel. At the time of sentencing for the fatal crash, Roberts was awaiting trial for allegedly one count of armed robbery, two counts of attempted armed robbery, one count of breaking and entering, and several other felony drug charges during a crime spree last September.

Taylor Roberts is a menace to society, but so is our criminal justice system, which often won’t consider past behavior or pending charges, and will routinely let drunk drivers off with light sentences even when someone dies as a result of their crime. Anyone who drives drunk should do serious jail time on the first offense, and if he causes the death of others, he should spend the rest of his life in prison. No deals, no pleas, no slaps on the wrist. Kayla King’s family deserves no less.


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