Jack Mizer’s 20-year prison sentence for drunken driving might seem harsh at first blush.
There are, after all, plenty of cases in which such egregious conduct drew lighter sentences. In Gilbert, for example, a young man who was drunk when he killed a police officer in 2006 received less than half that time in prison.
But drinking and driving had landed Mizer in prison before. And prosecutors said his behavior left them little choice but to ask for a harsh penalty when he was sentenced earlier this month. It was his ninth drunken-driving conviction.
Mizer’s case highlights a persistent problem, experts said. Though Arizona’s drunken-driving laws are touted as the nation’s toughest, it has proven extremely difficult for authorities to prevent alcoholics from ignoring court orders and state laws.
Short-term remedies like Breathalyzer locks and license revocations to keep people from climbing behind the wheel do not ensure that drivers, particularly alcoholics, will adhere to their punishment or seek treatment. The only real insurance is vigilant police or concerned citizens.
Mizer’s, according to court records, is a textbook case. He was an admitted alcoholic who repeatedly drove despite the fact that his license was suspended.
Mizer, 58, had been out of prison fewer than six months after serving an eight-year prison sentence for drunken driving when he was stopped by a Gilbert police officer last February. He was cited for aggravated DUI and driving with a suspended license.
Six months later, Mizer was arrested again for the same offenses after a man saw Mizer escorted out of Dub’s bar and restaurant in Mesa. He was placed on a bench near a Circle K before he “stumbled across the parking lot to a white truck” and drove home, according to court documents.
The witness followed Mizer home, saw him weaving across the center line, and called the police after Mizer pulled his truck into his driveway. When police arrived, Mizer was passed out behind the wheel with the keys in the ignition, according to court documents.
Now, Mizer will be in his 70s when he is released from prison.
Although Mizer’s sentence was unique, experts said there are many other drivers like him.
Nationally, about 15 percent of drivers convicted of DUI will reoffend, said Kelly Larkin, executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving in Arizona. During the course of its DUI enforcement last year, the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety found that more than 1,600 – or nearly 10 percent – of the 18,000 drivers cited for DUI reported having a prior conviction.
But the amount of time drivers are drunk behind the wheel before they are caught is of a greater concern to Larkin.
“The average driver drives drunk 87 times before their first arrest,” Larkin said. “The chances of it being their first time are probably pretty slim.”
One potential law-enforcement solution is a repeat-offender program operated by the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, which aims to identify and target drunken drivers who are caught frequently.
The program is crucial in the Valley, where a driver can be cited for DUI by up to 20 different police agencies, plus county sheriff’s offices and the Arizona Department of Public Safety, and end up in more than a dozen different court systems.
The courts check state Motor Vehicle Department records to determine if a suspect’s right to drive is cancelled, revoked or restricted because of a DUI conviction, said Aaron Harder, chief of the county attorney’s Vehicular Crimes Division.
If any of those factors are true, or if the driver was convicted of a DUI within the past seven years, the suspect can face felony charges of aggravated DUI, Harder said.
Mizer, having already served time in prison for felony drunken driving, was considered a repeat offender, a factor that led to his 20-year prison sentence.
“Frankly, it amazes me that he has not been involved in a collision or seriously injured or killed someone. It astounds me,” Harder said. “He’s just been fortunate.”
Yet letters written to the judge before Mizer received his sentence indicate he left victims behind, including his son.
“Jack is a good man, but he is a very lonely man,” Mizer’s girlfriend wrote in asking the court for leniency. “I think what happens is that the loneliness sets in, and he clings to that bottle.”