Five DUIs in Colorado Means No Jail – and No Ignition Interlock!

repeat-drunk-drivers-no-jailIt seems outrageous – a Colorado drunk driver will not go to jail, even though the man has four previous DUI convictions, and despite a new law making repeat drunk drivers face felony charges.

In fact, the defendant, Albert Torres, has been arrested seven times altogether for DUI, and was driving without a license at the time of this latest arrest. Nonetheless, the prosecutor only requested probation. In an unusual move, the judge added a year of work release, considering the prosecutor’s request too lenient. Work release means that an offender sleeps in prison but is allowed to go to work during the day.

What’s going on? Admittedly, Colorado is not tough enough on drunk drivers. For years, a person could rack up multiple DUI convictions with no added penalties. A recent law introduced Class 4 felony punishments – 2 to 5 years imprisonment and fines between $2,000 and $500,000 – for a fourth convictions.

But this was a clear case of drunk driving on a revoked license. Yet Torres got a slap on the wrist. What’s wrong?

The answer is: a lot.

  • Lack of understanding. The deputy district attorney who prosecuted the case noted that there had been no “accident” as a result of the drunk driving in this case. True enough. But the prosecutor seems to be saying that a drunk driver needs to be released back on the roads until he or she injures or kills someone.

That people still call DUI collisions “accidents” is more evidence that the the crime isn’t well understood. If a person makes the conscious decision to drink and drive, and hurts someone as a result, that is no “accident.” It is the result of a willful disregard of the welfare of others – reckless, thoughtless behavior.

  • Lack of ignition interlocks. An ignition interlock, or car breathalyzer, prevents a vehicle from starting if the driver has been drinking. Colorado does have an ignition interlock program, but usually the DMV imposes it, not the courts. And since Mr. Torres did not have a license, the DMV was not involved.

At this point, 27 governors have signed bills which require ignition interlocks for a first DUI offense, and another will soon be signed. Just recently Massachusetts joined the queue of states which are given more convicted drunk drivers access to ignition interlocks. Colorado needs to get on this bandwagon and start mandating interlocks for convicted drunk drivers, especially repeat drunk drivers.

What about Prison?

There are only two ways to take a drunk driver off the road: an ignition interlock or prison. The advantages of prison are that the offender can’t gain access to a vehicle that’s not equipped with an interlock, and it makes a lot of people feel good that they are punishing the criminal.

The disadvantages are that it is very expensive and can have devastating effects on both the offender and the offender’s family.

An ignition interlock is not a burden on state coffers;  the cost of the device and monitoring is paid by the offender, who can obtain treatment, support a family, and get a life back together.

Prison is appropriate for some repeat drunk drivers, but ignition interlocks are by far the cheapest and most realistic solution to the problem of keeping drunk drivers off the road.

Moreover, ignition interlocks can be imposed for longer periods than prison terms. Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) advocates compliance-based removal of the devices, meaning that the ignition interlock is not removed from an offender’s vehicle until he or she has passed a certain amount of time (say four months) with no failed breath tests.

This case might be an anomaly, one example of a prosecutor choosing to be too lenient with repeat drunk drivers. But these are the facts:

  • Drunk driving is a dangerous crime. That no one was hurt is evidence not of good intentions, but just good luck.
  • Punishments do not deter repeat drunk drivers, who have alcohol abuse and behavioral problems. The best policy starts with prevention of the act of drunk driving itself, through ignition interlock technology. In this case a five-year interlock period would be a good start.

The outcry over the verdict, and the judge’s move to increase the punishment, is a sign that not everyone in Colorado is soft on repeat drunk drivers. But the state needs to get tougher, and ignition interlocks are a good place to start.