It’s no secret that the topic of drinking and driving is a point of contention. On one side, there are those who argue that every alcohol affects every individual differently, dui check points are a clear invasion of privacy, and not everyone who drinks and drives once is acting with malicious intent. Others argue that there should be no tolerance for drunk driving by pointing to the almost 10,000 people in the United States who were killed in alcohol related crashes in 2014, accounting for 31% of all traffic related deaths that year.
Differences aside, it is easy to agree on the danger that repeat drunk drivers present. According to MADD, the average drunk driver has driven drunk over 80 times before their first arrest and the NHTSA estimates that about 25% of drivers arrested for drunk driving are repeat offenders. While this may not seem as common as the numbers indicate, there have been a few examples in recent months that highlight the seriousness of the problem. In Houston, Texas alone this year there was a man who received a life sentence after receiving his ninth drunk driving conviction and another woman who was given four years in prison after pleading guilty to her sixth felony DWI charge.
After reading about these two extreme cases of repeat drunk driving, the first question that comes to mind is how both of these individuals were allowed to continue driving after so many documented crimes. A quick look at Texas DWI Law doesn’t provide many answers either. According to the Texas DMV website, after a third DWI offense, there is a penalty of up to $10,000 in fines, state prison time between two and ten years, a license suspension for up to two years, and the potential for an ignition interlock device. By doing some simple addition for the string of offenses in both of these cases, it would appear that neither of these individuals should have been out on the road, let alone not behind bars after their third offense.
However, an often forgotten piece of the puzzle is something called “look back” or washout periods for drunk driving offenses. A look back period is the time period that a previous drunk driving arrest remains on one’s record, meaning that if enough time passes between arrests, they will not be considered repeat offenses. This time period is different in each state:
Five Years – Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, New Mexico, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Wyoming
Six Years – Ohio
Seven Years – Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota
Ten Years – Alaska, California, Connecticut, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, Montana New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia
Life – Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Texas, Vermont
As can be seen above, the look back period in Texas is very strict, but this hasn’t always been the case. According to David Breston, a DWI attorney in Houston with almost 20 years of experience in the field of criminal defense, “The law in regards to DWI punishments has changed dramatically over time. It used to be that if you had not had a DWI within 10 years the next DWI was a first DWI.” To his same point, way back in 1980, the punishment for DWI was only a $200 fine and 60 days in jail.
Therefore, because of the volatility of look back period laws, it appears that serious repeat offenders can slip through the cracks and lead to some almost incomprehensible headlines. It is also important to note here that the law changes drastically if drunk driving leads to injury or death. “If someone is an accident, the DWI is usually more serious. If someone is injured, the crime is called intoxication assault and if someone dies, it’s called intoxication manslaughter. These are both felonies,” says attorney Breston. For these two offenders specifically, none of their arrests resulted in serious damage or injury, thus likely contributing to them remaining on the road.
Although look back periods are designed to absolve one time offenders for past mistakes and protect the rights of drivers everywhere, they can also lead to some negative outcomes. If you have been arrested for multiple drunk driving violations, be sure to consult with a local attorney to learn about your state’s specific laws and penalties regarding repeat offenders.