Special Report: Understanding the DUI Loophole

Special Report: Understanding the DUI Loophole

"Basically it's a failure of communication."
BENTON, AR -- When Sheila Blair was arrested in September of last year for driving drunk in Benton, it was 11th time she'd been picked up for DWI since 1995.

"It gets to be a little bit frustrating sometimes if you have to deal with these people over and over again," said Kevin Russell, spokesman for the Benton Police Department.

Just a few months later, Edward Lockhart was arrested in Benton for his 14th DWI.

"The repeat drunk driver is one of the most dangerous things that you will encounter on your streets and highways," said Teresa Belew with Arkansas Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Blair and Lockhart are extreme examples, but activists, prosecutors and even defense attorneys all acknowledge a loophole allowing some repeat DWI offenders to avoid harsher punishment.

"It's pretty common," said John Collins, a Little Rock Attorney whose cases are 95 percent DWI.  "Do our clients sometimes benefit from it? Yes."

DWI convictions one through three are misdemeanors. The max sentence is one year in county jail.  No. 4 is a low-grade felony that can get you up to six years in prison.

Here's how the loophole works:

Say a driver is arrested for their third DWI then arrested again for drunk driving additional times before the first case is resolved.
  
All cases remain misdemeanors until there's a conviction in one of them.  At that time, the others should become felonies.

"Sometimes it can be two to three years before just one DWI is resolved," Belew said.

When cases, especially those in other jurisdictions, are finally closed, sixth judicial district prosecutor Larry Jegley says his attorneys sometimes don't get the message.

"Basically it's a failure of communication," Jegley said.

In Arkansas' 75 counties, Jegley points out there are countless law enforcement agencies and courts of all sizes with varying record keeping and data entering capabilities.

"There is not uniformity as far as the timeline by which information is input into the statewide system," Jegley said.

Belew says that's how some are able to rack up DWIs and avoid harsher punishments that should come with subsequent arrests.

It's also why police officers continue to be frustrated with the system.

"We have to deal with the aftermath of the drunk drivers when they unfortunately cause accidents that injure or kill other people," Russell said.

DWI repeat offenders one of the most dangerous things on the road.
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