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Tougher laws haven’t slowed drunk drivers


It wasn’t such an unusual day for William Todd Newman of Springfield. Again he was drunk. Again he was behind the wheel. Again he was busted.

If he’s found guilty, it’ll be Newman’s 14th driving-under-the-influence conviction since 1978. He has a dozen more prior convictions on related charges like hit-skip and driving without a license. He has been arrested on drunk driving charges 34 times since 1990, and got out of prison last summer after serving more than two years for a previous felony conviction for OVI, the current legal term for DUI.

“It’s absolutely crazy that a guy can rack up 14 DUIs. It’s absolutely insane,” said Clark County Prosecutor D. Andrew Wilson. “How many times do you have to go to court before you stop endangering people? Some people are not interested in rehabilitating themselves.”

Newman is hardly alone.

A Dayton Daily News examination shows there are 428 names, including Newman’s, on a state database that lists people who have had five or more OVI convictions within 20 years, and whose most recent offense occurred on or after Sept. 30, 2008. These drivers could have been charged with felonies in common pleas courts because of the number of offenses on their records. The database shows Montgomery County has the third-largest number of repeat offenders of Ohio’s 88 counties, with 35, after Stark with 45 and Clermont with 44.

Among other counties in the region, Butler had 15 offenders on the database, Greene had 14, Clark had 13 and Warren had 12.

Geauga County Common Pleas Judge Timothy Grendell, a former state senator whose legislation established the database, said under-reporting by some big-city courts probably accounts for Montogmery County’s high ranking for repeat offenders.

Because of its time restrictions, that database doesn’t reflect all repeat offenders, nor does it always capture all convictions of the offenders who do appear on it. For example, only seven of Newman’s 13 prior convictions show up because the other six happened more than 20 years ago.

Troopers of the Ohio Highway Patrol’s Springfield post arrested Newman, 53, on Feb. 25 after he allegedly slammed into two parked cars in the community of Northridge, north of Springfield, while drunk and driving somebody else’s car without permission and without a license. A grand jury indicted him March 11 on two felony counts of OVI, operating a vehicle intoxicated, and he’s being held in the Clark County Jail in lieu of $10,000 bond.

Felony OVI cases double in county

Montgomery County has seen felony OVI charges double from 23 in 2000 to 46 in 2012, according to Prosecutor Mat Heck’s office. Most OVIs are misdemeanors, with escalating penalties with each new offense, including jail time, but prosecutors can seek felony charges that carry time in state prison, as they did with Newman, if the suspect has had three previous convictions in six years or four in 20 years, or if a drunken driving crash resulted in serious injury or death.

“Clearly, if we’re doing OVI charges as felonies, they’re repeat offenders,” said Heck spokesman Greg Flannagan. “These are people who aren’t getting the message.”

Preliminary, previously unpublished 2012 data provided to the Daily News by the Ohio Supreme Court show that local jurisdictions vary widely in bringing OVI cases to municipal, county and mayors’ courts. For example, there were 550 new OVI cases in Dayton Municipal Court last year, compared with nearly twice that many, 1,010, in Clark County Municipal Court, which handled fewer traffic cases overall. Vandalia Municipal Court, which covers Vandalia, Englewood, Clayton, Union and Butler and Harrison townships, had 928 new OVI cases and even fewer traffic cases than Clark County. Fairborn Municipal Court had 755 OVIs with fewer traffic cases still. Akron’s municipal court had twice as many new OVI cases as Dayton’s, with a similar number of total traffic cases.

Activists against drunk driving say public awareness of its hazards has improved greatly over the last several decades and laws have been toughened.

“The biggest thing that’s changed is, responsible people no longer drink and drive,” said Andrea Rehkamp, who co-founded the southwest Ohio chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving after her son was killed in a fiery, alcohol-related crash in 1981. In the early days of MADD, “we actually received death threats. People said they’d drank and drove their whole adult lives and nobody was going to stop them.”

But the numbers of new cases in recent years remain stubbornly static. The highway patrol arrested 24,519 motorists for OVI in 2012, a number virtually unchanged from 2007’s 24,730. There were 72,877 new misdemeanor OVI cases in the state’s municipal, county and mayors’ courts in 2012, according to the Ohio Supreme Court. That’s little changed from the 73,373 new cases in 2008.

Fatalities involving drunken driving have dipped nationwide to about 10,000 a year from more than 13,000 in the mid-1990s. But all traffic fatalities have declined by a similar proportion during that period as safety equipment and emergency life-saving techniques have improved, so drunken driving continues to account for about a third of traffic fatalities, just as it did two decades ago.

“Even with all the awareness, the fact is that 27 people die (in the U.S.) every day because of a drunk driver,” said former Beavercreek resident Jan Withers, president of the national MADD organization in Irving, Texas. “It’s still way too high.”

1.5 million arrested for driving impaired

Most people who are technically first-time offenders are actually repeat drunken drivers, experts say. The average offender drives drunk 80 times before his or her first arrest, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports there are about 1.5 million arrests for impaired driving in the U.S. every year, and two-thirds of those arrested have no prior convictions. But a 2001 Gallup survey of the nation’s driving-age population shows that impaired drivers make about 1 billion trips a year, NHTSA noted.

Ohio and most other states define drivers as impaired if they have a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent or greater. According to the Ohio Insurance Institute, a driver’s risk of being in a crash is twice that of a nonimpaired driver at .06, three times at .08, eight times at .09 and 12 times at .10.

Prosecutors say Rachel Schidecker, 19, of Laura in Miami County, had a BAC of .236 when, after driving the wrong way on Interstate 75 for four miles, she crashed her Ford Explorer into a a Chevrolet Blazer in Montgomery County on Aug. 11, killing Chereece Rule, 39, of Kansas City. For people under 21, the legal limit is .02 percent. A county grand jury indicted her March 19 on charges of aggravated vehicular homicide and a special OVI charge alleging a BAC of .17 or greater.

In a remarkably similar tragedy, four people died Dec. 23 when a minivan driven by Joshua Nkansah of Fairfield, headed the wrong way on I-75 near Middletown, hit another minivan head-on. Nkansah, his 7-year-old son and a Madisonville, Tenn., couple died in the crash. An autopsy found Nkansah had a BAC of .346.

Robert Finkley also had a BAC in excess of .17 when, while driving at a high rate of speed southbound on Wayne Avenue on Nov. 19, 2011, hit a car stopped at a traffic light in front of the 10 Wilmington Place retirement home. The people in the other car, Corey Cooper, 18, of Dayton, and Christina Jackson, 20, of Riverside, were killed. Finkley later pleaded no contest to aggravated vehicular homicide and is in prison.

“He got eight (years): four for each of the children he killed,” said Cooper’s mother, Nancy. “The guy killed two people and he got basically a slap on the wrist, in my opinion.”

Corey Cooper had turned 18 nine days before his death. A football player with the nickname “Flyout,” he was a senior at Carroll High School who had planned to propose to his girlfriend at Christmas.

“He made sure you felt like he was your best friend,” Nancy Cooper said of her son. She said Christina Jackson, a Carroll graduate, was a lifelong friend and confidante. “He and Christina were both angels on earth.”

Cooper was awakened by a knock on the door about 3 a.m. the night of the crash. On her doorstep was a man she recognized from TV news: an investigator with the Montgomery County coroner’s office. When the investigator told Cooper and her husband, Brian, about the deaths of Corey and Christina, “I lost it and collapsed on the floor. I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t stop crying. I was sick to my stomach.”

Nancy Cooper and her dad, Joseph Pietzak, told the Daily News they believe Ohio laws need to be toughened to lengthen sentences for drunken drivers.

“This is a vehicular homicide,” Pietzak said. “It’s the same as if you pull out a gun and start shootin’.”

While she supports longer OVI sentences, Nancy Cooper said she doesn’t hate Finkley, 29, of Gainesville, Fla., who was in Dayton on a business trip.

“He’s somebody’s son, somebody’s husband, somebody’s father,” she said. “He didn’t get up that morning and say, ‘I’m going to go out and kill two kids.’ But he had every choice to stay in his hotel room and drink.”

Costs add up for OVI defendants

As a police officer in the upscale Toledo suburb of Ottawa Hills, Mark Deters arrested so many OVI suspects that he earned “Top Cop” awards from MADD. He taught other officers how to recognize the often-subtle outward signs of impairment. Now he’s a Washington Twp. attorney specializing in OVI defense.

“DUI is becoming more and more of a money game,” Deters said. “Those who have money survive, those who don’t have money don’t.”

He said it can easily cost $10,000 in attorney fees, court costs, fines, lost work, bond and alcohol-treatment costs for OVI defendants. “Once a person’s license gets suspended one time, it can be a downward spiral that a person never gets out of,” partly because a suspended license can prevent a person from working, Deters said.

While he said he doesn’t condone drunken driving, “People aren’t perfect and people have problems. It (alcohol) is everywhere. It’s so easy to get when you’re having a bad day. It’s in the statehouse basement. You go to a bar association event and what’s there? Alcohol.”

Experience as a cop and a lawyer has taught Deters that enforcement varies between police departments and many borderline OVI cases don’t lead to charges. “A lot of drunk driving cases never happen because the officer doesn’t detect it. There are also some officers who don’t like to do OVI arrests. There’s too much paperwork, too much hassle.”

Pointing to the Ohio Supreme Court data, Deters said enforcement in each municipal court is clearly much different between police agencies, with large cities typically making fewer OVI busts because there are so many other demands on officers’ time. “They don’t arrest for DUI in Dayton, they just don’t,” he said. “They have other fish to fry — bigger crimes, in their opinion.”

Dayton Police Major David Wolford agreed there can be more demands on urban cops, but, “we enforce (OVI) just like anybody else does.” Dayton applies for OVI enforcement grants and participates in OVI checkpoints and task force operations like neighboring jurisdictions, he noted.

Clark County Prosecutor Wilson believes the state prison system, under Gov. John Kasich appointment Director Gary Mohr, has gone too far in granting early release to non-violent offenders to reduce prison costs and crowding.

“The Department of Rehabilitation and Correction’s position is to get people out of prison,” Wilson said. “OVI, unfortunately, is one of those offenses they want to get out of prison because (offenders) are taking up beds they could use for somebody else. Basically, they’re choosing dollars over public safety. That’s as blunt as I can be about it.”

Department spokeswoman JoEllen Smith said prison recommendations for early releases must be approved by a judge, and prosecutors are notified when these recommendations are made.

MADD officials speak of a “cure” for drunken driving coming in the form of technology that would non-invasively measure a driver’s blood alcohol level and prevent the vehicle from starting if it exceeds the legal limit. Such technology is now being tested, though Withers estimated it could be a decade before it’s available as an option on new cars. Eventually, she hopes it becomes standard safety equipment, like seat belts and air bags.

In the meantime, Withers said, her best advice is for people to designate a sober driver.

“Decide before you have your first drink how you’re going to get home safely,” she said.

Staff Writer Ken McCall contributed to this report.


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