Legislators' scorecard: Three DWI convictions in four years

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Jun. 29—Hang around the great halls of the state Capitol for a day or two, and myths work their way into polite conversation.

A persistent one is legislators are committed to ending drunken driving in New Mexico.

Stray only a couple of miles from the Capitol, to St. Francis Drive and Siringo Road, and you cross the spot where state Rep. Georgene Louis was arrested on suspicion of aggravated drunken driving.

Louis, D-Albuquerque, was pulled over on Super Bowl Sunday for driving 17 mph above the 45 mph limit.

A Santa Fe police sergeant smelled booze on the five-term lawmaker. Louis registered a blood-alcohol level of 0.17 percent, more than double the baseline for driving while intoxicated. That result led to her being charged with aggravated drunken driving.

Legislators like to talk about how they make certain consequences accompany convictions. If a first-time drunken driver reaches the "aggravated" standard, the defendant faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 48 hours in jail.

Louis got off easier in a plea bargain with the prosecutor, an assistant city attorney, who handled the case in Municipal Court.

"Ms. Louis pled no contest to DWI 1st (non-aggravated) offense on May 16," city spokesman Dave Herndon wrote in an email. "As part of the plea, the aggravated portion of the DWI was dropped and the speeding charge was also dismissed. All defendants with similar charges receive a similar offer."

Louis did not respond to requests for comment on her plea. She will leave the House of Representatives at year's end, having decided after her arrest not to run for reelection.

Her troubles were many. Louis tried to influence the police sergeant, telling him she was fatigued because of her demanding political position.

"I haven't had much sleep because, um, I'm not trying to, like, say anything, but, like, I'm a legislator, so we haven't had much sleep," Louis said.

She paid $250 to the State Ethics Commission to settle a complaint that she violated the Governmental Conduct Act by referring to her political office during roadside sobriety tests.

One reason drunken driving remains a scourge is the example state lawmakers set.

Louis was the third legislator in four years to be convicted of drunken driving. The others were then-Rep. Monica Youngblood and then-Sen. Richard Martinez.

Youngblood, R-Albuquerque, was arrested in 2018 after being stopped at a DWI checkpoint in her hometown.

Youngblood often rose in the Legislature to argue for tougher criminal sentences. For example, she sponsored bills in three consecutive sessions to reinstate the death penalty in New Mexico.

But as a suspect in a drunken-driving case, Youngblood's only interest was in staving off her arrest. She gratuitously told the investigating officer she was a state representative.

Not intimidated, the officer snapped handcuffs on Youngblood. She accused him of being part of a department that mistreats ethnic minorities.

A judge convicted Youngblood of aggravated DWI, and voters ousted her in the general election five weeks later.

Martinez, D-Ojo Caliente, severely injured two people in 2019 when he crashed his car into their vehicle while it was stopped at a red light in Española.

Martinez admitted to drinking various amounts of beer or wine. Still, he feigned incredulity when a police officer placed him under arrest.

State District Judge Francis Mathew convicted Martinez of reckless driving and aggravated drunken driving. Mathew could have sentenced the senator to 180 days in jail. Martinez instead received leniency — a five-day sentence.

Fellow legislators said Martinez received far more jail time than most first offenders in drunken-driving cases. They ignored that Martinez injured innocent people.

Voters ousted Martinez in the Democratic primary election of 2020. Bad loser that he is, Martinez threw his support behind the Republican nominee. She lost in a landslide.

The defeat of Youngblood and Martinez demonstrated the public takes drunken driving more seriously than at least some legislators. As for most lawmakers, they say drunken driving can carry significant jail time, but judges almost always impose minimal penalties.

That rendition absolves legislators of any real responsibility. They are free to strengthen the law. I propose a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 days in jail for all first-time drunken drivers.

Such a law would funnel many more drunks to Uber. But I don't expect legislators to embrace the idea of longer minimum sentences. They showed no interest in increasing penalties after watching three colleagues turn their vehicles into roadway bullets.

The Fourth of July is approaching. It's a holiday that brings a wave of warnings. Governors, legislators and executives of government transportation departments sound alarms about drunken driving.

That fine tradition sidesteps important information: New Mexico legislators are part of the problem. Louis, Youngblood and Martinez were simply the worst of the lot.

Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at msimonich@sfnewmexican.com or 505-986-3080.