Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Too Late, Again

originally published November 4, 2009

The death of Johns Hopkins student Miriam Frankl by a hit and run driver commenced a trilogy to which we have all grown accustomed.

Part I, tragic killing. Part II, revelation that the suspect has a long record with the criminal justice system. Part III, outrage and call for action.

The Baltimore Sun chronicled the background of suspect Thomas Meighan, Jr. in a November 1st front page article that was all so familiar: Meighan’s long history of drunk-driving; the typical letters of an inmate to a judge pleading for treatment (and release from prison) so he could continue to fight “this fatal disease of alcoholism and drug abuse;” and the ample chances and opportunity for help that went for naught.

And now Part III, the call for tougher laws. I checked to see what the current state of the law is compared to when I first set foot in traffic court as a Baltimore city prosecutor over 22 years ago.

Back then you could refuse a breathalyzer test with impunity. Now you can have your license suspended a few months for refusing.

Back then you could get up to two years if you were convicted of drunk driving more than once. Now you can get three years for three or more convictions.

There’s a mandatory penalty for repeat offenders of 10 days in jail for three convictions in five years. And new provisions for mandatory treatment and an Ignition Interlock System.

Get the picture? That’s the glacier-like progress on “toughness” we have made in 22 years. I marvel at MADD for never giving up.

The truth is that as a society we are willing to wait until it is too late. When a veteran prosecutor in Carroll County calls for a 10-year maximum penalty for five convictions, you know how deeply we resist jailing drunk drivers. Five convictions! Can you imagine how many times a driver has to drive drunk until he is actually caught and convicted five separate times? Yet the suggestion would be progress.

The only time a drunk-driving suspect must take a breathalyzer or blood test is when he kills someone or causes life-threatening injuries. In other words, not until it’s too late. Until then, drunk drivers can refuse tests that might expose them to any sanctions other than a meaningless suspension of their license. Driving while suspended gets less sanction from the courts than drunk driving.

I don’t know how legislators can look at the smiling photo of yet another innocent victim and fail to radically change their world view. But it isn’t just them. They could increase penalties to 50 years and that alone wouldn’t make a difference. Not one judge sentenced Meighan to the maximum penalty for any of his previous offenses. In fact, he got the same sentence for his 7th and 8th arrests—18 months prison combined with probation afterward--even with a conviction for escape from prison in between.

Now Meighan is being held without bail on traffic charges even though he has yet to be charged with killing Ms. Frankl. The judges can do it when they want to, which is when it’s too late.

What’s the reluctance? Is it a perception that drunk drivers aren’t “criminals”? That people make “mistakes?” Sure they do. Prison isn’t for everyone or every crime.

But once again, our system is unable to distinguish those who make mistakes from the Meighans of the world. His case wasn’t hard. His repeat behavior cried out for action. But as I observed in The American Right to Drive…No Matter What, our system will accept any excuse to keep drivers out of jail and free to roam the roads.

Alcoholism may be a disease. And I am not in favor of locking people up for self-destructive behavior. But when their unchanged behavior imperils the lives of others, public safety must take precedence.

We have to stop waiting until it is too late.

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