Recently I had the opportunity to monitor a court proceeding for an accused drunken driver in Cambria Town Court for New York State Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). The case, which involved a Niagara County school official whose suspicious driving was reported by another motorist to the Niagara County Sheriff's Department last November, resulted in a DWI arrest and a blood alcohol test that measured 0.15, which is nearly twice the legal limit.
The case was monitored by MADD because of several inquiries from members of the public about the case. Many were concerned because the defendant works at a school facility and drives through parking lots and on grounds where students are also driving and walking.
The judge convicted the offender of a reduced charge of driving while ability impaired, suspended his license for 90 days and imposed fines. This is a disappointing, but common, practice, especially for first-time offenders. In this case, there was a prior DWAI conviction several years ago, which indicates to MADD, and others in our community, that the person has a problem with poor choices that involve drinking and driving.
Besides the reduced charge, a most disturbing part of this proceeding was the defense attorney's statement in his closing remarks that the probable cause for stopping the defendant might be considered "questionable," due to the fact that the deputy stopped him based on a report from another driver, instead of the deputy observing the erratic driving himself.
After the stop, the deputy reported, the defendant clearly displayed obvious signs that he was intoxicated, and in fact, failed sobriety tests that were given. Ten years ago, this defendant had another DWI arrest, which was also the result of a report from a citizen to the police, and also resulted in a reduced conviction of DWAI. DWAI convictions that are more than five years old cannot be considered in new trials, but for the rest of us, it clearly is evidence of a chronic problem.
It is vital in our society that drivers on our roads feel a responsibility, a duty, and the freedom and encouragement to report bad behavior of other drivers, in order to fight drunken driving and save lives in our community. It is outrageous and dangerous to cast doubt on the efforts of those who are responsible enough to take action to report erratic driving.
If, several years ago, someone had seen and reported the drunken driver who was driving in my neighborhood, and he had been stopped before he had the chance to drive down my street on his way home from a party, he might not have killed my little boy in front of my house, and my son might be alive today, instead of in a grave.
The fight against drunken driving does not involve only law enforcement, it involves every single one of us, all the time. The results of drunken driving on a community, as we have all seen firsthand, are tragic, deadly and devastating. When you see a person getting behind the wheel after drinking, or driving in an irresponsible or erratic manner, please call 911 and report it. Let the courts sort out the "probable cause" issue and all the other clever court maneuvers of drunken driving defenders.
Get this person off the road as quickly as you can, and you just might be saving someone's life.
Luanne Zuccari lives in Niagara County and has been a New York State Mothers Against Drunk Driving activist since 1996.