Wednesday, June 4th, 2014
Habitual offenders hard to stop
Drunken driving dilemma
By Kathy Thompson
Law enforcement officials say keeping drunken drivers off area roadways - particularly habitual offenders - is almost impossible.
Celina Police Chief Tom Wale said the issue frustrates him because there is no real solution to keeping impaired drivers from getting behind the wheel.
"You can suspend their licenses for life, and they drive," he said. "You can put them in prison for a few years, and the day or so after they get out, they drive while intoxicated. What really frustrates law enforcement is when we arrest them and then they get the charge reduced."
Punishment for a first-time Operating a Vehicle while Intoxicated conviction in Ohio includes three days to six months in jail or attendance in a driver intervention program, and a fine of $375 to $1,075. The offender's driver's license is suspended for six months to a year and can be amended to allow driving privileges to work, school or appointments. A conviction also includes an immediate 15-day "hard" suspension - no driving allowed.
Additional offenses may bring harsher punishments. A fourth or fifth OVI conviction makes the charge a third-degree felony, which includes at least 60 days to a year in jail and a maximum $10,000 fine. It also may include special OVI license plates and/or a device placed on the vehicle that forces the driver to take a breath test prior to starting the engine, and/or a lifetime driver's license suspension. After a driver is convicted of an OVI felony, all future drunken driving offenses are felonies.
Celina police this past weekend arrested Jason A. Gray, 36, of Celina, for his 10th OVI charge. Gray has the most OVI convictions in Mercer County, according to the Ohio State Highway Patrol's OVI/OMVI Habitual Offense Registry.
Police arrested Gray at 9:40 p.m. Saturday after the vehicle he was driving struck a parked car at 122 N. Lake St. Gray was not injured but the car he hit sustained heavy damage, police said. A dog in Gray's car reportedly suffered a laceration to its head.
Gray's blood-alcohol content was .212, above Ohio's legal limit of .08, according to law enforcement. He was charged with one count of OVI and his case is under review by the county prosecutor's office. If convicted of a third-degree felony OVI with a specification showing five or more OVI arrests in the past 20 years, Gray faces up to eight years in prison, prosecutor Matt Fox said.
Gray has a history of OVI arrests dating back to 1998, according to court records. He has been fined more than $10,000 in court costs, spent more than two years in prison and hundreds of days in jail, was twice placed under a lifetime driver's license suspension, ordered to wear an ankle monitor costing more than $3,000, placed on house-arrest at least once, served months in rehabilitation centers around the state and has been on probation for years, records state.
Prior to Saturday, Gray's most recent OVI offense occurred in December 2011. In July 2012, he was sentenced to 60 days in prison, one year of intensive supervision and three years of basic supervision. His license was suspended for life and he was ordered to pay more than $2,000 in court costs.
Mercer County currently has 35 residents on the habitual OVI/OMWI registry; Auglaize County has 15 residents on the list. The registry, which began in 2008, does not include convictions more than 20 years old, deceased offenders or out-of-state convictions.
Celina city law director George Moore believes OVI penalties already are stiff.
"Getting an OVI is expensive," he said. "It's not a slap on the wrist. You have to pay not only the fines and court costs, but you have to hire an attorney and that's thousands of dollars, then you have to pay for the three-day (alcohol) school, which is at least another $500, and just to get your license back you are obligated to pay the state a $1,500 reinstatement fee. It's not a walk in the park, even if the charge gets bumped down to, say, (failure to maintain) physical control. That's a fine of $1,000. At a minimum, a person charged with their first OVI can expect to pay out of pocket about $3,000."
Wale said he understands a judge reducing the charges if a driver is barely over the blood-alcohol content limit or has a clean record with no past arrests.
"But when we make a rock solid arrest and watch the person walk out of the courtroom with something less, that gets under my skin," the chief said. "We're out there taking them off the streets so they don't kill themselves or someone else and then they don't get the punishment. The next time they drink and drive, who do you think is going to be blamed if someone dies?"
Wale said law enforcement's goal is to reduce traffic-related crashes, fatalities and injuries.
"I think the system fails these people," he said. "While we're never going to stop every driver out there that is driving drunk, we try our best to stop as many as we can find. But nothing stops some people. Not prison. Not rehab. If prison doesn't scare someone, what else can you do?"
Moore said he understands Wale's frustration but believes each case should be evaluated individually.
"That's how you serve justice," Moore said. "I have to be able to prove a case in front of a judge or jury. Some cases are pleaded down to lesser charges. A lot of factors go into that. Did the blood work come back the way we thought it would? Is there any other evidence I can show? Some cases just aren't going to be won on a specific charge, no matter how strongly I feel about a case. We work within the law. We have many methods of punishment and deterrent - jail, rehab, fines, ankle monitors, probation. But the unfortunate part is some drivers will never stop drinking and driving. What we can do is make it hurt a little more each time by their loss of freedom or money."
Fox said laws should be stricter for habitual drivers.
"I think the quicker and the harsher the punishment, the better," the prosecutor said. "I think judges need more options, whether it be allowing them to impose more jail time sooner, alcohol monitors, counseling, rehab. Instead of imposing on judges more restrictions, they need to allow a judge the discretion he or she is sworn to uphold and mete out the sentences on a case to case basis."
Last year, there were more than 23,000 impaired drivers on Ohio roadways, according to the Ohio Department of Public Safety. Of those drivers, 12,138 were involved in a crash resulting in 300 deaths and 7,037 injuries.