MEMPHIS, Tenn. – One in three people will be involved in an alcohol-related crash in their lifetime. Organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving say it helps a victim or survivor of drunk driving every 10 minutes. FOX13’s Tealy Devereaux takes a look at Shelby County’s repeat DUI offenders, who they are, and why they’re allowed to keep driving.
We found out that 50 to 75 percent of drunk drivers continue to drive on a suspended license. Former Shelby County District Attorney General Bill Gibbons formed a unit just to deal with DUI offenders, but one mother said they’re still getting behind the wheel and taking lives.
The damage from a DUI crash can be devastating not just to the cars involved, but to the families of the victims. Just ask Sandra Weeden.
“I was numb for a long time. So depressed, I didn’t want to do anything.”
Her 19 year old son Christian was killed when a drunk driver hit him in January 2007. To make it worse, Weeden said the driver’s DUI arrest wasn’t his first, it was his 3rd offense.
“The day they convicted him the judge asked him if he wanted to get up and apologize to the family, and no, he didn’t want to. His lawyer said ‘Oh well, he’ll write them a letter.'”
Right now there are 54,081 third time DUI offenders in Tennessee. The numbers go down for 5 time offenders, although they are still a staggering 16,602.
Lieutenant John Mannon with the Memphis Police Department said his DUI officers lock up some of the same old faces over and over again, which is frustrating.
“They come back into the office to share their stories with us how they locked them up a month ago and they’re surprised they didn’t learn the first time.”
We checked around to see just how many repeat DUI offenders there are around Shelby County. The District Attorney’s office gave us a list of 21 defendants it has who have been busted 4 to 6 times for driving under the influence. The men and women range in age from 36 to 61 years old.
“They treat them almost with a lot of respect, drunk drivers,” Weeden said. “They don’t really give them a very harsh punishment. It’s just not right.”
According to statistics from Mothers Against Drunk Driving, a group Wedden now volunteers with, an average drunk driver has driven drunk 87 times before their first arrest. Shelby County Prosecutor Bo Bell said he’s prosecuted too many DUI offenders to count.
“The easy answer is that they’ve got a problem, a drinking problem. Whatever we do doesn’t seem to work. Putting them in jail doesn’t seem to work because they keep coming back.”
Sadly, Bell said he’s even had cases where a convicted drunk driver who’s killed someone winds up back in court. “There’s no excuse for it, but we see it.”
So what part does punishment play in deterring drunk drivers from getting behind the wheel and becoming repeat offenders? Weeden said she doesn’t think penalties are stiff enough. Just take her son’s case and the 60-year old driver, Ricky Willis.
“They give him 8 years but they suspend his driver’s license for a year, it’s no good. When you’re in jail, suspending his license for a year, when he gets out he’ll be back on the street and there’s no telling what.”
Last year the Tennessee Legislature passed a law requiring alcohol ignition interlock systems for repeat offenders and for first time offenders with a blood alcohol level of .15 or more. The systems work like a breathalyzer, forcing drivers to blow into a testing device in order for their cars to start. Bell’s hoping what was passed on the interlock system makes a difference, but he’d also like to see more. “When you get a second DUI offense and you’re stopped, not having the ability to refuse [a breathalyzer].”
Right now, ‘implied consent’ gives someone the option of refusing a breath test when pulled over, although refusing to blow means losing your license for one year. Bell thinks taking away that opportunity for multiple offenders could help cut down on the problem. “It’s one piece of legislation I think would make sense.”
Weeden said she’s not sure when she’ll ever make sense of her son’s death. Ricky Willis, the man convicted of killing 19-year old Christian, is still behind bars but has already been up for parole once since his conviction in 2008.
“It’s hard to make peace with that pain, but we have to in order for us to continue to live our life,” Weeden said.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving is working on requiring those interlock systems for all convicted drunk drivers in Tennessee.
Read More on Tennessee’s DUI Laws: