handcuffs- pleading down drunk drivingPeople are individuals, and so are their crimes. This is why our justice system allows flexibility in charging and sentencing. However, the crime of drunk driving is so straightforward that it’s often exempt from such bargaining. In many states pleading down drunk driving charges is not permitted. Most states also have mandatory penalties such as jail time and ignition interlock requirements.

A recent case shows how giving DUI offenders a break can cost society dearly.

Kelly Ann Conkin was sentenced this month for killing a 79 year old woman in an alcohol-related wreck. Her BAC was 2.1, more than twice the legal limit. The collision happened in Steele Creek in Charlotte, North Carolina. The sentence was 12 to 15 years.

Conkin had been arrested three times for drunk driving. Yet she had a license to drive, because of a combination of mistakes, deception and bad luck.

  • First time: When she was first arrested for DUI, the charge was pled down to reckless driving – a measure that is available to drunk drivers in some states so that a DUI does not go on their record. In this way they avoid a wide range of penalties.
  • Second time: Conkin’s second arrest, in Charlotte, was her first official DWI, since her first real drunk driving charge didn’t count as such.
  • Third time.  She was arrested a third time in South Carolina, but the courts managed to miss the previous North Carolina DUI. So once again, she was prosecuted as a first offender. That made her eligible for fewer consequences.

For Want of an Ignition Interlock, a Life Was Lost

The crucial fact is that, had Conkin’s last drunk driving episode been prosecuted as a repeat DUI instead of a first offense, she would have had an ignition interlock installed in her vehicle on the day she killed Cecilia Buitrago de Gonzalez. An ignition interlock, or car breathalyzer, prevents a vehicle from starting if the driver has been drinking.

That means that Gonzalez’s death might have been avoided if the offender had not been allowed to reduce the first offense.

Ignition interlocks are unique in that they are the only measure apart from imprisonment that prevents an offender from repeating a crime. In order for ignition interlock laws to work effectively, they must be enforced. That means that first offenders should be charged with the appropriate crime – DUI. Only then can repeat drunk drivers be identified and prevented from causing harm and suffering on our roads.

Think the US is Too Tough on Drunk Drivers?
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