Vail Daily column: Why Colorado needs a felony DUI statute
Seventeen-year-old Juan Carlos Dominguez-Palomino was driving home from a friend’s house on the night of March 24 when his car was hit by a speeding drunk driver who blew a red light. While Juan Carlos was killed immediately, the driver of the other vehicle sustained only minor injuries. That driver, Ever Olivos-Gutierrez, is now being charged with alcohol related vehicular homicide. It wasn’t the first time Olivos-Gutierrez had driven drunk. It wasn’t even the first time he had been caught, as the deadly crash may result in his fourth DUI conviction.
In Colorado every year, too many families suffer the loss of loved ones to accidents caused by drunk drivers. A 2009 Denver Post study reported nearly four in 10 drivers arrested for suspicion of driving under the influence had prior DUI convictions. Nationally, Colorado is in the minority of five states exposing persistent drunk drivers to only minimal, misdemeanor penalties, no matter how many times they’ve been caught and convicted.
This past week the Colorado House Appropriations Committee advanced HB14-1036. This bill, which already has passed unanimously in the House Judiciary Committee, would mandate that a third DUI in seven years, or a fourth DUI in a lifetime, as a felony, and carry a maximum six-year prison sentence. Along with many other district attorneys in the state, I support passage of this bill.
Much of my legal career was spent defending drunk drivers, prior to my current responsibilities as an elected prosecutor in the 5th Judicial District, spanning along the mountainous I-70 corridor. Practicing as a defense attorney in California, a state with a felony DUI law almost identical to that being proposed here, I warned all of my DUI clients that a fourth conviction would land them in prison. That was a law that bared its deterrent teeth. Conversely, current Colorado law has little bite when it comes to repeat DUI offenders, so much so that a defendant I was recently prosecuting, when asked at sentencing, couldn’t even remember the number of times he had been previously convicted of driving under the influence. To his chagrin, the judge did — it was six prior convictions. The judge herself was shackled, however, by the inability to impose a sentence lengthier than one year. This sentence had not deterred the defendant in years past, and is unlikely to protect us now.
The ability to charge a person with multiple DUIs with a felony, potentially putting them in state prison for a much longer period of time, will greatly reduce the chances of repeat DUI offenders injuring or killing. It will force some of them to think twice before drinking and driving, and will put those who refuse to use common sense where they cannot harm.
Colorado laws are, and will continue to be under the new law, forgiving and rehabilitation focused for convicted drunk drivers with up to three convictions. In my four county district alone, we have two ongoing courts directed to the treatment of alcoholics who run afoul of the law. It is a strategy that will continue with a felony DUI law, but not without the added option of prison to those whom treatment does not reach.
While in any case a death or injury caused by a drunk driver is a shameful tragedy that could easily have been prevented, the disturbing trend that we are seeing is accidents, caused not by drunk drivers who may have made a singular mistake, but who rather have multiple prior DUI convictions.
Currently, prosecutors are like carpenters without a hammer when facing repeat DUI offenders. To deal with these persistent DUI offenders, we need another tool.
Bruce Brown is the district attorney for the 5th Judicial District, incorporating Clear Creek, Eagle, Lake and Summit counties. He can be reached at BBrown@DA5.us, or visit the DA’s website at http://www.DA5.us