One Too Many for the Road
A COOL LATE-AFTERNOON BREEZE scatters litter and leaves along lower Broadway as the sun slowly disappears behind the gleaming glass-and-steel towers that define the San Diego skyline. Almost as if on a silent cue, clusters of people begin to gather near the doors of the Hall of Justice. At first, there are only a few score.
By 6 p.m., there are hundreds.
They form an eclectic stream of humanity that eventually stretches for blocks. These are men and women, of no particular age, who have little in common but the fact they have all been charged with driving under the influence (DUI). And they have gathered here, on an otherwise unremarkable Tuesday night, to face the anguished voices of MADD.
This unlikely mass encounter is by no means voluntary. A single appearance at the monthly Mothers Against Drunk Driving presentations, called Victim Impact Panels, is one of the many terms of probation handed down to those charged under state and county DUI sentencing guidelines. Offenders also are required to attend a series of group sessions and classes focusing on alcohol and drug abuse and the often-tragic conse quences of driving under the influence. They meet in face-toface sessions with a counselor and attend a specified number of self-help meetings (Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, among others). And there is the community service, which can range from picking up litter along area freeways to cutting weeds and planting ground cover on county property. There are also, of course, the requisite court appearances, attorneys’ fees (if a defendant opts to enlist the help of a lawyer), steep fines and the temporary loss of driving privileges.
But it is the close encounters with people whose lives have been painfully cleaved by drivers under the influence of alcohol or drugs that is the most heart-wrenching, soul-searing aspect of the punishment meted out to otherwise law-abiding citizens (some accused, others already convicted) who suddenly find themselves in that ill-defined, universally despised category: drunk driver.
The MADD sessions are not easy for anyone. These are in-your-face encounters with mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles and sometimes just close friends of the victims of alcohol- related crashes—MADD veterans will tell you straight out that there are no drunk-driving “accidents.” The speakers struggle through tears and strained voices to relate their painful personal stories of grief and loss. There is no hysteria here, no pointing of fingers, no assignment of guilt or blame. But there is passion, and pain, on both sides of the speaker’s podium.
Similar scenes are played out during monthly Victim Impact Panels at the El Cajon Courthouse and the Vista Courthouse. In addition, two monthly sessions are conducted in Spanish, in San Diego and Vista.
AND SO IT IS, on a Tuesday evening, that Juan Molina stands before a crowd of some 300 people assembled in the jury lounge at the Hall of Justice in San Diego and recounts the loss of his only son, Michael. He has been telling his poignant story for the past six years.
“In August of ’98, I got a phone call from hell that every parent dreads,” Molina tells the audience. “I remember the doctor saying, ‘Your son was hit by a drunk driver.’ And I remember crying, moaning, ‘Oh God, no.’ ”
Molina pauses to take in a long, deep breath. “When we arrived at the hospital, Michael was in a coma,” he says. “I felt so helpless. As a dad, you always want to help your kids, but I couldn’t do a thing for Michael.”
His son remained in a coma for 30 days. “We never left his side,” Molina says. “I’ll never know if he heard how many times we told him we loved him.” Michael died September 20, 1998. He was 25 years old.
“I used to think the most beautiful word in the world was ‘Dad,’ ” Molina says. “Now, whenever I hear someone close by say ‘Dad,’ I hear my son’s voice.”
Michael Molina was born July 11, 1973. “He was a beautiful baby,” Molina recalls. “Full of energy. He was walking at eight months. Growing up, he was shy, but quick with a smile. Michael loved music, and even started his own band. He had a great future in front of him. But then, one night, one guy sitting in a bar somewhere decided to have one more drink before driving home. And because of that one decision, my son is no longer here.”
Juan Molina is one of three speakers this Tuesday night. A second member of the panel, Judy Ward, describes in wrenching detail the death of her grandson on May 27, 2005, at 1:07 p.m. The date and time are clawed into her memory, her heart. Her story is different from the others: Her grandson, Nolan, was behind the wheel when the car he was driving slammed into a palm tree at 60 mph. The impact split the car in half. Rescuers used the Jaws of Life to extract him from the wreckage. His blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) was .17, more than twice the legal limit of .08.
Ward reads aloud a letter she wrote to her grandson shortly after his death: “You were only 18, my love, and starting to find your way in the world. I wanted to watch you grow. . . You were just starting to make your own decisions. You never had a chance to correct that [last] mistake. And I never had a chance to say goodbye.”
THE TOLL OF ALCOHOL- and drug-related crashes nationwide and in San Diego County is numbing. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, four times as many Americans died in alcohol-related crashes from 1985 to 1995 as were killed in the Vietnam War. NHTSA officials estimate two of every five Americans will be involved in an alcohol- related crash at some point in their lives.
In California, fatal crashes involving alcohol have risen steadily since 1998, when 1,072 people were killed. By 2004, that number had risen to 1,462.
There are a number of theories why alcohol-related fatalities are rising. Some believe the increase is a result of less media attention or a lowering of public concern. Others point out the number of California drivers increases each year, and as a result, it’s impossible to determine whether a larger percentage of them are driving under the influence. Regardless of the underlying cause, the toll continues to mount.
In 2002, 95 people were killed and 3,077 were injured in alcohol-related traffic collisions in San Diego County. The peak year for alcohol-related crashes in San Diego County was 1987, when 210 people were killed in collisions involving impaired drivers, and 5,316 were injured.
That’s 210 personal catastrophes—more than 200 irrevocable losses in the span of one year—like those recounted by Juan Molina and Judy Ward.
WITH MORE THAN 30 YEARS of experience, attorney, author and former law professor Lawrence Taylor has seen dramatic changes on the legal landscape with regard to drinking and driving.
“Fifteen years ago, a person arrested for DUI would just pay a fine and be done with it, but things have changed radically,” he says. “Today, a first-time offender charged with burglary is better off than a first-time DUI.”
Taylor describes his typical client as “a 58-year-old lawand- order type who’s never been in trouble before.
“It’s a very traumatic experience for them,” he says. “Very frightening. And a DUI arrest can be devastating financially, professionally and personally. In San Diego, we see a lot of military personnel charged with DUI. That can mean the loss of a security clearance, or even a military career.
Taylor, known as the “dean of DUI attorneys,” heads a firm of eight criminal-defense lawyers who limit their practice to misdemeanor and felony DUI defense and serve clients from San Diego to Los Angeles and Orange County. His fee for a first DUI offense is $6,000. “That includes expert witnesses, blood analysis, whatever it takes,” he says.
Attorney Michael Berg, in his 20-plus years of trial experience, has ushered scores of DUI defendants through the legal brambles they stumbled into.
“The majority of my DUI cases are first-time offenders,” Berg says. “For the most part, we’re talking about otherwise law-abiding citizens who have never been in trouble in their lives, and basically they’re treated like criminals. The very worst part for them is spending a night or two in jail. Women held at Las Colinas find themselves locked up with prostitutes. It’s a real eye-opener for them. Most people don’t realize just how traumatic, and expensive, that first DUI arrest can be.” Indeed, when a person convicted of a DUI offense tallies up the costs incurred, that last drink may end up costing $10,000 to $15,000—or more.
Fines vary from court to court within the county. A typical first DUI conviction in the San Diego Court system carries a fine of up to $1,850.
“Think about how many cab rides you could pay for with that kind of money,” Berg says.
In very general terms, there are two laws governing DUI offenses in California. One law entails the courts, regarding conviction, probation and jail. The other law covers an offender’s driver’s license, the purview of the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). The two are completely separate.
Once you are charged with driving under the influence, the steep fine is just the beginning. There are towing and impoundment fees, which can total hundreds of dollars, and restitution fines, which are designed to compensate the injuries and losses suffered by victims of drunk drivers—they range from $100 to $10,000. And the DUI education program, which is a requirement of probation? Enrollment fees start at $440 for the three-month first-offender program and top off at $1,465 for the 18-month sessions designed for multiple offenders. If you fail to attend a scheduled meeting, you are required to pay a $20 absence fee.
A first DUI offense results in a sixmonth suspension of a person’s driver’s license. (A second offense carries a two-year suspension.) The fee charged by the DMV to reinstate a suspended license is $125. And public service— which entails eight-hour days of manual labor—is not free. Enrollment in the County Probation Department’s Public Service Program costs $41. And that Victim Impact Panel you were required to attend? A $20 donation to MADD. The tab just builds and builds.
Most individuals find the greatest cost of a DUI conviction is tied to increased car insurance premiums. Many insurance companies routinely double or even triple the premiums for the same level of coverage. And depending on a person’s driving record, there is the possibility that the insurance company will drop the coverage altogether.
“This whole process is extremely cumbersome and expensive,” Berg says. “I’m convinced that if people knew all of this, they’d never drink and drive.”
DESPITE THE OFTEN-TRAGIC consequences of driving while impaired, the DUI sentencing guidelines and BAC legal limit are not without controversy. The standard was established in October 2000, when then- President Bill Clinton signed legislation instituting a financial penalty for states that did not implement a .08 blood-alcohol limit. Failure to adopt that legal limit would result in a loss of a portion of federal highway funds.
Some argue the .08 limit is artificially low and that it “criminalizes” otherwise lawabiding citizens. Others question the testing methods used to determine who is driving while impaired. In law offices, courtrooms and local pubs, the “.08 debate” rages.
“I believe in time we’ll see it [legal BAC] go down to .05,” Taylor says. “That’s the trend. Officials keep focusing on expanding the concept of the crime. But that hasn’t solved the problem. The real problem is chronic abusers. That should be the focus.
I’m not against drunk driving being illegal, but I think they’ve gone overboard,” he adds. “And in the process, they’re trashing ordinary citizens’ constitutional rights. In all DUI cases, there is a presumption of guilt. It’s not a fair system.”
Paula Myers, victim services director for the local MADD chapter, thinks the .08 legal limit is “right on target.
“We have no plans to try to lower the BAC,” says Myers, who’s been active with MADD for 16 years. “That limit was established based on medical research. There is evidence that all people, regardless of their size, are impaired at .08.”
Understandably, whether the legal limit should be 1.5, .08 or .05 is inconsequential in Juan Molina’s view. “Look, I lost my son,” Molina says. “You can play with the numbers all you want, but the bottom line is, on average, two people die each week in San Diego County in alcohol-related crashes. We shouldn’t be playing with people’s lives.”
People such as Luann Howard’s young nephew, Marchello.
HOWARD, THE THIRD MEMBER of the Victim Impact Panel, has brought a postersize photograph of her nephew to the MADD meeting. Marchello was killed by a drunk driver on October 1, 2004. In the photo, a handsome young boy of 14 flashes an engaging, almost impish grin. “Because of one drunk driver, he’ll be 14 forever,” Howard says, staring straight into the eyes of the audience.
On that fateful October evening, Marchello and several friends had been to a football game at Monte Vista High School. They were walking in the bike lane on Sweetwater Springs Boulevard, when, at 8:20 p.m., a Ford F-150 pickup struck Marchello from behind and threw him 130 feet onto the rough pavement.
“The truck never stopped,” Howard says. “While Marchello’s friends were trying to figure out what had just happened, one of them spotted what he thought was Marchello’s jacket in the middle of the street. It was his jacket, and his body was still in it. He was dead on arrival at the hospital.”
The driver who killed Marchello had two prior DUIs, Howard says. “He was sitting here, just like you, but he just didn’t get it.
“I know I need to forgive,” she says, “but right now that’s just not possible. A beautiful, innocent young man was killed because someone had too much to drink but said, ‘I’m fine. I’ll be fine.’ My one wish is that I’ll reach one of you and touch your heart so that you’ll never drink and drive again.”
After the MADD presentation, people from the audience walk single-file past the speakers. There are awkward handshakes and equally awkward moments of silence. And there are still more tears. Some just nod and move on. One woman embraces Molina and says, simply, “I’m sorry.” And there is a whispered “Thank you,” now and then, as people stream past. It is, by most accounts, a most unexpected, and aching, form of spontaneous camaraderie.
After the last person files out the door, Howard wipes tears from her eyes. “This one guy came up to me, looked me in the eye and said, ‘You’ve got your one wish.’
THE SDSU CENTER on Substance Abuse’s Driving Under the Influence Program (DUIP) was launched in 1991, under a contract with the county of San Diego, to provide driver education and counseling services. The program enrolls approximately 4,000 first offenders and multiple-conviction offenders each year. Participants are referred by the courts or the Department of Motor Vehicles. Each person in the program is required to complete an education series, which consists of several two-hour lectures. There are also group counseling sessions lasting 90 minutes and individual face-to-face interviews with a DUIP counselor. The group meetings are designed to help participants pinpoint potentially dangerous behavior patterns regarding their use, or abuse, of alcohol.