The story was appalling.
A local woman, Christina Dawn Steele, was charged with DWI after the vehicle she was driving allegedly crossed the center lane and smashed head-on into an oncoming vehicle, severely injuring four people in the other automobile.
Steele already has 12 DWI convictions, according to N.C. Department of Corrections records (not to mention a host of other crimes).
Shortly after the story, and a follow-up piece, was published in the Mount Airy News on Feb. 14, and Feb. 15, respectively, both articles generated a considerable number of comments on our website and on Facebook.
Readers were largely outraged — and rightfully so. Steele should have been locked up long ago, with the key thrown away.
This article came just days after Robert Taylor Downey, of Winston-Salem, pleaded guilty to five charges related to a July 15 crash in Winston-Salem. Downey, whose blood alcohol level was .31 — nearly four times the 0.08 that is considered legally drunk for a driver — ran a red light and smashed into a car carrying Clinton Robert Edwards of Cana, Virginia, and his sister, Mary Edwards King, of Mount Airy.
Downey is a habitual offender who had a number of similar convictions on his record prior to the record.
Unfortunately, these are far from isolated incidents. Every year it seems we run a handful of stories — sometimes more — about individuals who are either drunk or under the influence of drugs, causing a wreck, killing or horribly injuring innocent individuals, only to learn they have DWI after DWI conviction already on their records.
And yet they are back on the streets, driving again.
Those who do this are, in our estimation, guilty of murder, just as surely as if they’d pulled out a gun and begun randomly shooting at passing cars. They should be locked away long before they get to their 12th, or even 6th, DWI conviction.
But the blame doesn’t stop with them.
Prosecutors and judges have blood on their hands in these cases, too.
All too often we believe judges simply want to move court along. The truth is most judges, despite what the law says, work for the District Attorneys. The DA’s determine the court schedule, they decide who gets a free pass and who doesn’t, and the judges by and large rubber-stamp the proceedings.
It seems most DA offices are concerned more with the won-loss record than meting out justice.
Rather than actually put a drunk driver on trial, or suggest a lengthy prison sentence, they offer plea agreement that keeps business humming right along. They get to chalk it up as a conviction, another W for the win column, while not having to work through the more complicated task of actually trying to convict someone of the crime they committed and give them the deserved jail time; the clerks’ office gets to keep collecting those fines; and the guilty party gets to hit the road again.
Of course, it’s not just the court system with blood on their hands.
Legislators share the blame. We see a lot of legislators claiming to be tough on crime, but we rarely see them actually do anything to get these repeat DWI offenders off the street.
No mandatory jail sentences, no automobile seizures of those with DWI convictions, no long-term jail terms for those with multiple convictions.
Then there’s the rest of us. We, as a society, share the blame for those accidents as well. Whenever we run one of these stories, people get all up in arms. They become angry. They post on our website and on Facebook that the offender should be locked up for life, or “put under the jail.”
But few take any concrete, discernible action.
Write your legislators. Educate yourself about DWI — did you know the average person charged with a DWI has driven under the influence an estimated 80 times before being caught? Did you know nearly 400 people died on North Carolina highways last year in DWI-related wrecks?
Those facts are out there — we’ve written them numerous times in the pages of The Mount Airy News. We’ve called on folks before to contact their legislators regarding DWI laws, even outlining more specific and harsher penalties for the guilty.
Yet few people will avail themselves of those facts and contact their legislators, demanding tougher, mandatory sentences for DWI convictions. Even fewer will take action and start petition drives, organize voters and make this a central issue for state officials.
Instead, we’ll play around on Facebook, make a few web comments, and think we’ve taken part in some sort of public discourse. Meanwhile habitual DWI offenders continue to kill, and we have more blood on our hands for our part in their deaths.
For those wishing to take real-life action, contact your legislators, express your concern, and demand they explain to you exactly what they are gong to do to meet this problem.
Rep. Sarah Stevens, (919) 715-1883 or by email at Sarah.Stevens@ncleg.net
State Senator Shirley Randleman, (919) 733-5743 or by email Shirley.Randleman@ncleg.net