The DUI Crash: Is it Murder on the Highway?
Mothers Against Drunk Driving once circulated an effective anti-DUI poster. It pictured several shot glasses filled with whiskey with the headline: "How Many Shots Before It's Murder?" The poster underscores one, long-neglected truth about those who insist on drinking and driving -- when does this senseless, irresponsible act rise to the level of murder? Almost 500,000 people per year are injured by drunk drivers in the U.S. Or about one every minute.
A Family Devastated by a Senseless Act
In October 2003, Anna Rojas, her family and friends were headed in the Rojas' Suburban SUV to the Palace Park bowling alley in Irvine.
They planned to celebrate the 13-year-old's birthday. But tragedy struck when a DUI suspect caused a car crash or collision that killed Anna's mother and friend, and left the teenager's father, brother and other friends in critical condition.
The Rojas family was very close. Anna's father, Felipe, had just completed a tree house for the children. Her nine-year-old brother, Thomas, was often preoccupied with his Play Station. Her mother, Linda, was an excellent cook. And Anna was learning to play the violin.
According to the CHP, the drunk driver hit speeds of 120 mph before he lost control of his black Camaro and slammed into the Rojas family's car on the northbound 405 Freeway.
The Camaro first struck a Honda Civic, which spun across the freeway onto the shoulder south of Culver Drive. The Camaro then hit the Rojas' Suburban, which rolled over and off the pavement, slamming into a tree. Linda Rojas, who was not wearing a seat belt, was ejected and killed. Also killed was Giovanni Jimenez, 10, a friend of the family.
Many of the occupants in the Rojas SUV were injured, yet miraculously, Anna suffered only a cut to the arm and was released from the hospital. Anna's father, Felipe, and brother Thomas, 9, sustained significant personal injury, including broken pelvises and major internal bleeding. The remaining passengers were also listed in critical condition.
The drunk driver, identified as Stephen Antony Houston-Irving, 30, of Costa Mesa, was arrested on suspicion of felony drunken driving, vehicular manslaughter, and hit and run. After colliding with the Rojas' SUV, Houston-Irving sped away, striking yet another vehicle, a gray Lincoln Town Car. Despite having allegedly destroyed the lives of the Rojas family, Houston-Irving was released from Orange County Jail on $50,000 bail.
Prosecutors Getting Tough
Some prosecutors are getting so tough on drunk drivers who cause the wrongful death of people that the penalties they exact are unprecedented. Instead of charging a drunk driver who causes the death of another with vehicular homicide, they now are going for murder using the argument of "depraved indifference." In many states, a murder conviction carries a mandatory penalty of 15 to life.
The problem is, current methods of discouraging drunks aren't working. A recent federal government study revealed that 15 percent of adult drivers actually admitted to driving under the influence at least once in the past year. Moreover, a Duke University study showed that ten percent of recent high school graduates admitted to drinking and driving. And when it comes to punishing drunk drivers, sentences "roller coaster" from state to state -- from probation to life in prison. Then there's plea bargain, which in some cases drastically cuts jail sentences. Prosecutors say it's hard to get a tough sentence out of a jury because there are always people who can identify with the DUI driver.
For more information on Mothers Against Drunk Driving please visit their website at http://www.madd.org or call the Orange County MADD office at (714) 838-6199.
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