MARC CHASE: Driving recklessly in OWI litigation

2014-03-20T00:00:00Z MARC CHASE: Driving recklessly in OWI litigationMarc Chase marc.chase@nwi.com, (219) 662-5330 nwitimes.com
March 20, 2014 12:00 am  • 

When do we stop creating more laws and demand prosecutors and judges enforce a plethora of legal measures already on the books?

This question immediately came to mind last week when Mothers Against Drunk Driving applauded the Indiana General Assembly for a new law expanding the state's ignition interlock program. You know, the one in which special devices are installed on convicted drunken drivers' vehicles, requiring convicts to blow with sober breath into a straw before their engines will activate.

But what about all the other laws on Indiana's drunken driving books? I printed off the portion of Indiana Code pertaining to operating a vehicle while intoxicated, and it consumed 11 largely single-spaced pages of prescribed punishments in the toolbox of prosecutors and judges who should be dropping the hammer on this type of behavior.

Of course, for the real hammer to fall, offenders caught behind the wheel with illegal amounts of liquor flowing through their veins must be convicted of operating while intoxicated. And history tells us — in Lake County, at least — even repeat offenders frequently skate with a virtual slap on the wrist.

A few years ago, a Times investigation of five years worth of drunken driving dispositions in Lake County revealed more than half of operating while intoxicated charges were pleaded down to the lesser charge of misdemeanor reckless driving. That same investigation revealed more than 700 drunken driving defendants repeated the behavior within the five-year period.

At that time, repeat offenders were responsible for 17.3 percent of the entire drunken driving caseload.

I suspect not much has changed.

It's not just a problem here, either. More than a decade ago, I did a similar analysis of drunken driving enforcement in the Quad Cities — a Mississippi River region straddling the Iowa/Illinois border. The probe found significant differences between tougher drunken driving enforcement in Iowa versus Illinois, where a number of offenders had their cases pleaded down to lesser charges.

How can the message get through if penalties remain lax?

In Indiana, defendants charged more than once with drunken driving within five years are supposed to face felonies for subsequent charges. But reckless driving pleas negate repeat offenders from facing the more severe penalties.

Handing out reckless driving deals to drunken drivers like rum balls at a holiday party is itself reckless.

Just ask the family of the Lansing grandfather allegedly killed by Munster drunken driving suspect Michael Temores in 2011. Prior to that incident, Temores tallied more than 100 arrests or citations for various driving infractions, including two prior operating while intoxicated counts, one of which was pleaded down to reckless driving and the other reduced to a misdemeanor.

Now that someone is dead, Temores will have a hard time sliding on the recent case, now pending in Lake Criminal Court. But it's particularly reckless of our criminal justice system to allow it to reach this point.

Investigative Editor Marc Chase can be reached at (219) 662-5330 or marc.chase@nwi.com. The opinions are the writer's.

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