The Penalty is The Problem

Last night, the New York Legislature created, with the endorsement of Gov. Eliot Spitzer, a new crime, Aggravated Vehicular Homicide.  The law will be known as “Katie’s Law,” named after the horrible tragedy that took the life of a young girl in a limo returning from a wedding where she was the flower girl.  The word horrible does not begin to capture the depth of this tragedy.

And so we have a new crime to allow for a sentence of 25 years to life, the same as intentional murder, for drunk driving that results in death. The aggravating factors include a suspended license, BAC over .18, more than one person killed or injured, a prior DWI.  And what is the compelling need for this new law?

“For Heidgen, there was a law in place to allow the family to get a semblance of justice. But for 99 percent of people whose loved ones are lost at the hands of drunk driver, there is no justice,” said Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice. “This is step one in making New York one of the most effective states in prosecuting this epidemic.”

Sen. Charles Fuschillo (R-Merrick) said the bill will “give prosecutors the tools they need” to go after deadly drunken drivers. Under current state law, prosecutors are usually only able to charge second-degree manslaughter in fatal drunken driving accidents. That carries a maximum of 5 to 15 years.

Will an increase in the maximum penalty reduce drunk driving?  Will it give families “justice”?  Will it give prosecutors “the tools they need?”  Or will it give politicians and prosecutors a chance to put on a show to prove their “tough on crime” bona fides? 

It’s hard to cobble together a credible argument that somebody drives drunk because, “hey, it only carries a max of 15 years.  If it was 25, I wouldn’t do it.”  More importantly, drunk driving is a very dangerous thing and it should be taken seriously.  But it is not the outcome that makes it bad, it is the potential outcome that makes the act egregiously wrong. 

Is the drunk driver blowing .25, but lucky enough not to kill someone or get caught, less morally culpable than the same drunk driver who causes death?   There but for the grace of god…  One goes home and sleeps it off, only to go to work, or school, or wherever, as if nothing happened.  The other spends the rest of his life in prison.  They both engaged in the exact same conduct, but the consequences are a world apart.  The only difference between the two is pure kismet, as the drunk who made it home has put every man, woman and child on the road at risk of their lives.  He is every bit as wrong.  And the drunk who didn’t make it home?  Well, he lost to the combination of his crime and the odds.

And while the tragedy that befell Katie scares the daylights out of me, I hate that names are married to laws to invoke a visceral response intended to overcome reason.  How can anyone be against a law for Katie?  But we know that using Katie’s name is the hook, nothing more, to garner political capital from a human being’s tragedy.  Poor little Katie is gone to all, except politicians who care more about her now than before.

3 comments on “The Penalty is The Problem

  1. SHG

    Yeah.  New York politicians just can’t stand to let a good tragedy go to waste.  If they think they can get a few paragraphs in the paper out of it, or maybe even a photo op, they’re on its like flies on, well, you know.

    I would venture a guess that they are not unlike politicians everywhere, using whatever they can to promote whatever attribute they believe will elevate them in the eyes of the public.  Do they consider the rationale behind the law?  Nah.  Do they consider the law of unintended consequences?  Nah.  Do they even think about right and wrong?  Aw, c’mon.  This is all about seizing opportunity in a simplistic, self-aggrandizing sort of way.

    But is the problem only with the pols?  Unfortunately, I don’t think so.  They are appealing to the base instincts of the public.  They are playing into the simple-minded, knee-jerk, magic bullet solutions that the public demands and expects.  If the pols are wrong, they reflect a flaw in the democratic process.  After all, we get the government we deserve. 



  2. Pingback: Beating Up On Drunks: The Heidgen Rule | Simple Justice

Comments are closed.