'What if I wasn't so lucky?' DUI repeat offenders a threat, but hard to keep off the road

Posted: Wednesday, February 23, 2011

As Christopher McMurray braced for impact, he instinctively yelled to his only passenger, a 16-week-old yellow Labrador named Zoey, to hold on.

Submitted Photo
Submitted Photo
Christopher McMurray stands next to his wrecked Kia Sorento last month. McMurray was injured and his vehicle totaled in a collision with a driver with multiple DUI offenses.

The seatbelt dug in, hard, a thin strip of nylon/polyester fabric straining to stop the 24-year-old's body from traveling 50 miles-per-hour through the windshield. Milliseconds later, the airbag exploded into a disorienting cloud of white as the Kia Sorento's systems registered the crash.

The SUV spun backward into the ditch running alongside the Kenai Spur Highway, but for all McMurray could tell he was still on the road. The other driver had lost control of his Ford F-150 and slid sideways, straddling the north and southbound lanes. There had been nowhere for McMurray to go except into the side of the vehicle blocking the entire road.

He pushed the airbag out of his face and reached for the hazards button. Then he turned on the dome light, because he couldn't find his dog.

"I could see blood on my dashboard and there was a lot of blood on the passenger side," McMurray recalled. "And my dog was dead."

McMurray's father Damon, who had been following his son out of Nikiski in a separate vehicle, saw the wreck and could only assume the worst. He pulled off and checked on his son, who was in remarkably good shape, and then went to check on the other driver.

"The other guy is conscious but it really smells like booze," he told McMurray.

Coors Light beer cans littered the road, ejected from the back of the brown Ford. McMurray remembers that when the ambulance arrived, he could hear the unmistakable tinny clatter of empty cans rolling across the pavement. Pictures from the scene show beer cans scattered throughout the bed of the truck, and several more strewn about the cab.

A passerby who had stopped to check on the situation approached McMurray and his father to make sure they were OK before telling them the driver of the other vehicle had bailed and run off into the night.

The Nikiski Fire Department responded on that Jan. 8 evening, put McMurray in a neck brace, and transported him via ambulance to Central Peninsula Hospital, where he spent two hours getting X-rays and other tests done. Later, a trooper would come to McMurray's home in Sterling to talk about the accident. He would take down his recollection of events, and explain that they had found the other driver about three hours after the accident.

"He informed me they had caught the guy and that he was extremely intoxicated and had also been smoking marijuana," McMurray said. He said that Trooper Jason Woodruff also told him that this man had previously been cited for multiple DUIs and other drug charges, that the guy had no insurance, a revoked driver's license, and that the vehicle was not even registered to him.

"He put my life along with all other lives on that road in danger," McMurray seethed. "He knew that risk and ignored it.

"What will it take to keep multiple DUI offenders off the roads for good?"

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Of the 5,888 DUI offenses recorded by the Alaska Division of Motor Vehicles statewide in 2008, 31 percent were repeat offenders.

The mandatory minimum sentence for someone who is caught driving drunk in the state of Alaska is 72 hours in jail, a $1,500 fine, and a 90-day suspension of his or her driver's license. In the second instance of DUI, the minimum jail time jumps to 20 days, the fine doubles to $3,000, and the length of license suspension is at least a year. Both first and second offenses are considered misdemeanors.

"The ability to drive a motor vehicle on a highway in the state of Alaska is a privilege, not a right," said Sgt. Duane Kant of the Soldotna Police Department. "And if we take your privileges away, then in theory you shouldn't be doing that anymore."

But a theory is all it really is; a driver's license is essentially just a glorified piece of paper. Its absence or nullification doesn't prevent one from setting foot in a car, digging the keys out of one's pocket and placing them in the ignition.

"It's like any other criminal offense," Kant said of people who continue to drink and drive despite having their privileges revoked. "I don't care what you legislate. If somebody really wants to do that, you're not going to legislate that away. I don't care what kind of penalty you attach to them."

The fact is, a first-time offender has on average driven drunk 87 times prior to being arrested, says Mothers Against Drunk Driving, a non-profit organization devoted to reducing the incidence of DUI nationwide. So sadly, the chances of driving drunk and getting away with it are relatively good.

The consequences of those hell-bent on continuing to drive while drunk are just as staggering: 40 percent of fatal crashes in Alaska in 2008 were alcohol-related, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and the Fatality Analysis Reporting System.

"I think the most dangerous thing that the average Kenai Peninsula resident does is get behind the wheel and drive the highways," Kant said. "Not that they're not safe, but you are totally dependent on the other person driving that 5,000-pound vehicle to keep it on their half of the road and to do what they're supposed to be doing."

If a third DUI is racked up in a period of 10 years, the driver crosses into felony territory and the repercussions are stiffer still: at least 120 days in jail, a $10,000 fine, and permanent license suspension. Over the past five years (2006-2010), the Kenai Police Department has seen 436 DUI arrests, and nearly 13 percent of those were felonies.

"They are in the denial stage," said Teresa DeGuilio of the people who fall into this category. "They don't believe they are alcoholics and they don't believe they have a disease."

DeGuilio is the Alcohol Safety Action Program (ASAP) administrator for the program's Kenai branch. DeGuilio sees the first- and second-time offenders who are required to go through a health assessment and treatment program as part of their sentencing. For the month of February as of the 18th, she has handled 25 new clients (first-time offenders) and 12 repeats (second-time offenders).

"The law can only go so far," she said of forcing people to stop driving while intoxicated. "The court system can only go so far."

DeGuilio recounted a story of a client she worked with for 10 months who had a couple DUIs under his belt. An alcoholic, the man was finally accepted into a residential treatment facility in Anchorage (the waiting lists are notoriously long) and completed treatment with flying colors.

Four days after being released, he was arrested for eluding arrest, driving with a revoked license, and driving under the influence.

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"At the very least I think the guy should go away for attempted murder," McMurray said as he sat in a coffeehouse with his fianc Tomi and daughter Dakota. "It just makes sense to me that way."

The man who hit McMurray and his dog in all likelihood won't face attempted murder charges. But McMurray's point is clear. He doesn't understand how someone with so many strikes managed to get his hands on a vehicle and endanger all the lives on the road that night he drove down the Spur in early January.

"What if I wasn't so lucky that night?" McMurray wondered. "My fianc would be raising our 16-month-old daughter alone."

McMurray's right knee and right wrist were injured in the wreck, and his insurance will only cover up to $25,000 in medical bills accumulated over the next three years. He has already spent three hours in the hospital, taken a trip in the ambulance, and had several doctor appointments, X-rays, MRIs, and medicines prescribed. He would like to get another dog to replace Zoey, but doesn't know when that will be possible.

"She can't say 'Zoey,'" McMurray said of his daughter, "but she runs around the house going, 'Zo Zo Zo Zo,' like she used to do when she chased the puppy around. She's starting to give up on it."

McMurray does not believe that people are inherently bad and that they cannot learn from mistakes. He admitted that most people probably do learn their lesson after the first DUI. But those who don't, he maintained, need to face harsher consequences.

"We need our courts to quit being so lenient on these criminals," McMurray said. "They need to make a point that it is not OK to drink and drive. Whatever they are doing now isn't getting the point into these people's heads."

Due to back injuries he sustained during the crash, the man who hit McMurray spent a considerable amount of time in the hospital after the accident. The Alaska State Troopers are compiling their report against him, which will then be forward to the district attorney.

He has yet to be arrested or charged.

Karen Garcia can be reached at karen.garcia@peninsulaclarion.com.

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