Harsher punishment for a repeat drunken driving offender could have saved the lives of a young region couple, the mother of one of the victims said.
That offender, Mario Cadena, twice received leniency from prosecutors and a judge before triggering a fatal crash in April 2008 that killed him and three others.
Cadena, 30, of Crown Point; Garry Weiss, 53, of Crown Point; Stephen Hough, 26, of Merrillville; and Amy Bartelmey, 25, of Hobart, all died of blunt force trauma with massive internal injuries in the three-car accident at the intersection of 101st Avenue and Randolph Street near the Merrillville-Winfield border, according to the Lake County coroner's office.
Cadena's blood alcohol level was 0.17 -- more than twice Indiana's 0.08 legal limit.
Cadena's experiences in the Lake County courts system were typical of first- and second-time offenders, a Times analysis of five years of drunken driving cases shows.
Less than 40 percent of drunken driving cases filed in the last five years resulted in drunken driving convictions, a Times investigation found.
The Times analyzed more than 9,000 misdemeanor and felony drunken driving cases filed in Lake County between 2006 and 2010. The Times' analysis did not include drunken driving cases filed in city or town courts.
The Times' investigation also found:
• More than half of all drunken driving cases were pleaded down to misdemeanor reckless driving.
• About 2.8 percent of drunken driving cases were pleaded down to misdemeanor public intoxication.
• More than 700 defendants reoffended within the five-year period.
• Repeat offenders were responsible for 17.3 percent of all drunken driving cases filed.
• At least 28.8 percent of defendants charged with injuring or killing someone in a drunken driving accident had been charged with drunken driving before.
A former prosecutor who now is a defense attorney said Lake County is among the most lenient counties in the state in prosecuting drunken driving cases.
Lake County prosecutors said their stance on drunken driving cases is far from a slap on the wrist. They argue the added conditions they impose in plea agreements put their punishments on par with those doled out elsewhere in the state.
But Bonnie Hough, whose son was killed in the wreck caused by Cadena, said she believes prosecutors and judges are in such a hurry to dispose of cases they forget their duty -- keeping streets safe.
"You'd think they'd think it through a little more and stop giving free passes," she said.
'A lot of justice'
Lake County Prosecutor Bernard Carter said his office's policy for plea agreements in drunken driving cases is based on an offender's level of intoxication, and whether there are other circumstances involved, such as injuries, deaths or resisting law enforcement.
Most first-time offenders' charges are pleaded down to misdemeanor reckless driving, a Times analysis shows.
A reckless driving conviction gives a defendant six points on his or her driver's license instead of the eight points imposed after an operating-while-intoxicated conviction. Points negatively can affect a driver's car insurance premiums and driving privileges.
It also provides more leniency for repeat offenders.
If a defendant is charged more than once with drunken driving during a five-year period, the subsequent charges are supposed to be felonies. But a plea to reckless driving is not a drunken driving conviction. Therefore, if a defendant is charged again within five years, the charge will be a misdemeanor.
But prosecutors said a reckless driving conviction isn't a free ride.
Defendants still must pay thousands of dollars in attorneys' fees, fines, and probation and counseling costs. They also may be sentenced to performing community service, attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, wearing monitoring devicing or speaking to children at local schools about the dangers of drunken driving.
"There's a lot of justice that really is incurred here," said Peter Villarreal, first assistant deputy prosecutor in Lake County. "Even though someone might say, 'Oh they reduced it to a reckless driving.' Well, you know what, there's a whole lot that goes into that."
Carter said defense attorneys would threaten to send all drunken driving cases to trial if prosecutors became too stringent with plea guidelines. A glut of trials would clog the Lake County courts system, he added.
"We had to come up with a policy that the people of Lake County can live with and that the judges can live with -- that we can move these cases but yet get justice," Carter said.
Officials said the public decides what level of justice it can live with.
How Lake County compares
Jack Crawford, a defense attorney and former Lake County prosecutor, said public perception determines how prosecutors handle drunken driving cases.
"Murder, rape, robbery, child molesting -- people think, 'I would never do that. None of my friends would ever do that,'" he said. "But when it comes to operating while intoxicated, it's a little bit difficult to argue that same point."
Some counties require jail time for first-time drunken drivers, while others are less severe.
Porter County prosecutors typically require defendants to plead guilty to an operating while intoxicated charge, as do Marion County prosecutors. Officials in both offices said they rarely will plead cases down to reckless driving.
In Cook County, first-time drunken driving offenders typically are sentenced to court supervision, according to defense attorneys who practice there. Court supervision is not a drunken driving conviction but still appears on an offender's criminal record.
Crawford said drunken drivers receive the most lenient treatment in Floyd and Clark counties in southern Indiana, followed by Lake County.
"I know at first glance that might appear to be unfair," he said. "If you have the same law in one county, and you're convicted of it, shouldn't you receive either the same or at least close to the same penalty as if you were convicted in a county 300 miles away? Technically and legally, I suppose that's true, but, practically, it isn't true."
Brad Banks, a division supervisor in the Marion County prosecutor's office, said the majority of first-time offenders in Marion County plead guilty to a drunken driving charge.
He said prosecutors take a harder line on those cases because of the number of drunken-driving-related deaths in Marion County.
"It makes us more keenly aware of what can be a worst-case scenario," Banks said. "We're aware of how serious crashing into a building or a tree could have been."
Local police officers who enforce Indiana's drunken driving laws said their goal is to keep drunken drivers off the roads no matter how the cases are handled in court.
St. John Patrolman Steven Rudzinski said he has arrested more than 1,000 drunken drivers in his 28 years on the force.
Yet he has been called to testify in only one trial.
"As an officer, I could say they should fry everybody, but I'm a realist," Rudzinski said.
Rudzinski, who is chairman of the Lake County DUI Task Force and coordinator of the Lake County Traffic Safety Partnership, said some people fall through the cracks, but justice is served in most cases.
He said many first-time offenders don't realize they are drunk when they get behind the wheel.
In neighboring Porter County, Master Patrol Officer Gregory P. Coleman, who is in his eighth year as a Portage police officer, said he chooses to work midnight shifts so he can catch drunken drivers.
Coleman made 103 drunken driving arrests in 2010 -- the most by any officer in Porter County.
He said the important thing is keeping those drivers off the road.
"Even if (prosecutors) plead them down to reckless driving here, it wouldn't change what I do," Coleman said. "They can plead everyone down if they wanted. I would still catch as many as I possibly could and get them off the road."