Repeat DUI offenders get “slap on the wrist” – Does state law go far enough to keep drivers safe?

Huntsville

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - We have seen it here in the Tennessee Valley and we have heard the outrage over repeat DUI offenders behind a wheel of the car once again - sometimes with fatal results.

The actual law regarding driving under the influence is exhaustive, longer than the state's capital murder statute. Even so, it leaves room for repeat DUI offenders to get back behind the wheel.

That's how in 2013, Jessica Gatewood was able to get behind the wheel of a car and cause a wreck that left one man dead -- despite having a revoked license and a list of prior DUI charges and convictions across two counties.

"One of the big struggles is we technically have on the books a felony DUI statute, which means your first three DUIs are misdemeanors, then on your 4th or subsequent conviction it is a felony," explains Shauna Barnett, Assistant District Attorney in Madison County. “[It's] exceptionally frustrating especially when you have someone who’s done felony time in the Department of Corrections for repeat DUIs that come back and it’s just a slap on the wrist again.”

Barnett says to get a fourth conviction in five years - the requisite for a felony DUI charge - is almost impossible.

"It’s basically a part time job for you, drinking and driving, to get caught that often," said Barnett.

Getting serious sentences for repeat DUI offenders is a struggle prosecutors face, and it can have a fatal outcome for drivers on the road.

If repeat offenders can't be put behind bars, judges have other options. They can consider house arrest, ignition interlock systems, or transdermal monitoring.

"It's not like in the middle of the night we get an alert that this person's drinking. But, [with transdermal monitoring] in less than 24 hours we know this person has stepped off the line. We can immediately try to address that."

Unfortunately, these tools are underutilized and maximum penalties rarely - if ever - get doled out. For families in pain, wanting a better form of justice, Barnett simply says:

"I wish I could tell them something that's comforting, but the bottom line is the maximum punishment for your first three DUIs is 365 days in the Madison County Jail, and by nature of the felony DUI law has been almost abolished by case law."

When people die at the hands of a drunk or drugged driver, it brings into sharp relief the need for programs like drug court and counseling for offenders who legitimately struggle with addiction. Barnett says this just isn't something Alabama's criminal justice system can afford.

"A lot of folks just don't have the money or insurance that covers [addictions counseling], so addressing in any meaningful way someone who has a serious addiction problem is not something the criminal justice system is equipped to handle. On paper there are things that are supposed to happen, but bottom line is if you have a serious addiction the isn't paying for rehab, we can't."

Part of the mandatory terms of any DUI conviction is that the offender goes through a court referral officer assessment to determine substance abuse issues, they also have to do a highway intoxication seminar.