It had the makings of a perfect storm, two drunk driving collisions in two days, both driving the wrong way on highways, and one cop dead as a result. Add to that a District Attorney who made her bones on drunk driving deaths in a county where there isn’t enough crime to grab a headline otherwise. It wasn’t mere wind blowing, but a tsunami.
And yet the first reaction of Kathleen Rice, slayer of drunks behind wheels to be treated as murderers instead of people with altered states of consciousness, was to call upon the state to do something to prevent drivers, especially drunken ones, from entering a highway in the wrong direction.
Oh my. She’s got the right answer. Check to see if the clocks are working. Seriously, it was the right thing to do.
In a letter released Monday, Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice said the state should consider additional warning methods to alert drivers going the wrong way on highways.
“We need to come up with ways to bring to the attention of drunk drivers that they are going the wrong way,” Rice said in an interview Monday.
“While there exists no doubt that intoxication and impairment play the most significant role in many of these tragic crashes, such a fact does not eliminate the responsibility of our state’s transportation authority to thoroughly study and propose ways to improve the safety on state roadways,” she said.
This is as close as one could expect for Rice to acknowledge that drunk drivers aren’t murderers, bent on going the wrong way down a major highway in order to cause the almost inevitable crash. Even drunks would generally prefer to make it home and sleep it off than end up dead on the road. Or with the death of another on their hands.
After a spate of wrong way collisions years ago, the state installed signs that said “wrong way” at exits to highways to prevent people from mistakenly entering the wrong path. It happened to the sober as well as the drunk, and the results on the highway were similarly predictable. Apparently, this wasn’t sufficient to alert the seriously intoxicated to the error of their ways.
Whether it’s big, bright, orange signs that could alert the dead not to enter, and even the stoned and drunk, a solution that prevents the death of a driver, a family, happily traversing the roadways is precisely what would help. The idea is to save lives rather than avenge them. Rice got this right.
But then she, with the self-aggrandizing help of state Senator Charles Fuschillo, went and did it. It was just too good, too visceral, to pass up.
The proposal, by state Sen. Charles J. Fuschillo, would take discretion away from judges who under current law decide whether defendants are fined, jailed, put on probation or given community service regardless of a first or repeated offense.
Under the proposal, a second drunken-driving conviction within a decade would mean a minimum of 30 days in jail; for every conviction after that within a decade, drunken drivers would face at least 90 more days in jail, said Fuschillo, who advocated for the change at a news conference Tuesday with Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice.
So it’s the fault of all those wimpy judges who exercise discretion and don’t send a second DWI offender in ten years to jail? Would that be because drunken drivers, after a few vinos grande, stop and give some time to the contemplation of consequences before getting behind the wheel? Or would that be because those wimpy judges don’t care about innocent people dying on the road? Or would that be because mandatory minimums have worked to very well up to now at reducing wrongful conduct?
“There’s going to be no more judicial discretion to say you won’t go to jail,” Fuschillo said.
Rice and Fuschillo said that those arrested more than once for drunken driving are more than likely repeatedly driving drunk and not getting caught.
It’s such a great theory, that increasing penalties will persuade people from engaging in illegal conduct. Consider how successful it was for drugs under the Rockefeller laws. Well, maybe not,.
Marc Gann, a criminal-defense attorney who’s also president of the Nassau County Bar Association, said he doesn’t support the proposal because judges already can and do sentence people to jail for repeated DWI offenses and because education and treatment are better ways to address drunken driving.
“Part of the issue is they are impaired in some way,” Gann said. “They’re not thinking, ‘I’m wasted. I can’t get behind the wheel of my car.’ They’re not thinking right.”
Which is precisely what makes laws addressing drunk driving problematic; they have all the attributes that, by simplistic deduction, should alter behavior, and yet they don’t. Because “they’re not thinking right.”
Neither is Rice nor Fuschillo, both for their insult to the judges who actually deal with the drunk drivers (notably with the acquiescence of Rice’s assistants, who have to offer the pleas to which the courts impose sentence), as well as their gut reaction of an answer that has not only failed miserably to serve its claimed purpose, but caused horrible unintended consequences that have devastated the lives of so many over the past few decades.
Of course, with two drunk driving crashes in 24 hours, it was just too good an opportunity. To her credit, at least Rice is batting 500 this time, which is her best at bat yet.