State legislators willing to act if needed on repeat DUI offenders

·6 min read

Jul. 3—Rocky Face resident Ed Howell said his aunt was killed by a drunk driver in 1980.

"I don't remember a lot of the specifics because I was only 5," he said. "She had worked the second shift and was coming home. She lived just outside LaFayette, and he crossed the center line and hit her head on."

Howell said he believes the criminal justice system and people in general take DUIs more seriously now. That seems to be borne out by statistics.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports there were 10,142 deaths from drunk-driving crashes in 2019, down from 28,000 in 1980.

But obviously, some people continue to drive while intoxicated, and a few do it repeatedly.

On March 16, a Whitfield County jury found Lawrence Eugene McFalls Jr., 55, of Ringgold, guilty of DUI and driving with a suspended license. Superior Court Judge Scott Minter sentenced him to 24 months in prison.

What made the case so disturbing was that this was McFalls' 11th arrest for DUI and his seventh for driving with a suspended license. According to information provided by the Conasauga District Attorney's Office (Whitfield and Murray counties), McFalls had DUIs in 2018, 2014, 2007, 2004, 1999 (twice), 1996, 1988, 1986 and 1984, mostly in Whitfield and Murray counties but also two in Gordon County.

The district attorney's office did not indicate that anyone was injured or there was any significant property damage from those DUIs.

"I'm stunned. I've never seen anyone with 11 DUIs," said Murray County Sheriff Jimmy Davenport. "From my experience, most people learn their lesson after one or two arrests. But you do run into these habitual violators."

Denise Blake, executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) Georgia, said it's uncommon to hear about people with 10 or 11 DUI arrests.

"They do occur," she said. "But most people have one or two offenses and then they realize this is something they have to take seriously and they stop. But what we do know from studies is that a person who is pulled over for DUI has typically driven under the influence 80 times before their first arrest."

Data on MADD's website, madd.org, indicates that one-third of DUI arrests are of repeat offenders. It does not indicate how many of those are arrested for their second offense and how many for a third or subsequent offense.

McFalls isn't the only repeat DUI offender to show up in a Whitfield County courtroom.

On March 9, Jeremy Russell Bivens, 37, of Chatsworth, pleaded guilty to DUI (fourth or subsequent offense within 10 years). He was sentenced to five years probation, a $1,000 fine plus other charges and 300 hours of community service. He was also barred from consuming alcoholic beverages during his probation and ordered to undergo substance abuse treatment. He was placed on home confinement and ordered to wear an electronic ankle monitor.

Records indicate Bivens was arrested six times for DUI between 2009 and 2020 in Whitfield and Murray counties. District Attorney Bert Poston said the records indicate there were no injuries or property damage from any of those arrests.

"Our notes show the 2009 case was dismissed," Poston said. "So the three cases in 2010-2011 were his first convictions and those appear to have occurred in rapid succession. He was arrested 8/11/10, 1/5/11 and 2/21/11 so three arrests before the first case was resolved. The first two pled in June of 2011 with the third being resolved in September of that year. It appears he got a total of six months on those with some of it running concurrently."

Georgia law treats first and second DUIs as a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail. Third and subsequent DUIs are felonies, punishable by prison time. Under the law, various factors can affect a sentence, including the driver's blood alcohol content and whether the arrest took place within 10 years of the driver's first DUI arrest.

"First DUI is typically a couple of days up to a few days in jail," said Poston. "By the second or third you're looking at 30 days or more. After that, it really depends on the specific facts and circumstances but it obviously goes up."

Poston said he takes DUI cases very seriously.

"When I first started working in the DA's office in 1992 one of my first assignments, I think starting in 1993, was to prosecute all traffic offenses including all DUIs, all serious injury by vehicle cases and all vehicular homicides," he said. "I tried over 100 jury trials in my first three to four years and most were those kinds of cases.

"As the elected DA, I can't handle every DUI case but I still personally handle most of the serious injury and vehicular homicide cases, which are fortunately rare. I don't have numbers to back this up, but it seems like in the 1990s and even early 2000s it was a lot more common to see defendants arrested for their third, fourth, fifth, etc., DUI. While we still get some of those obviously, the majority of DUIs we prosecute these days seem to be first and second offenses, so it seems like there has been some deterrence over the years or a cultural shift on how the public thinks about driving under the influence."

Still, Blake said juries are still reluctant to convict DUI offenders when there are no injuries or property damage involved.

"I think they place themselves in the driver's position," she said "They are probably thinking, 'Well, I had a couple of beers once and drove and nothing happened.'"

Poston said deterrence can vary tremendously between individuals.

"One person might not be deterred at all by having to spend a few nights in jail," he said. "Another might be deterred from ever doing it again just by getting arrested and bonding out a few hours later. When we negotiate guilty pleas, on any kind of case, not just DUIs, we try to factor in all of the circumstances of the case and of the offender and treat each case as unique, while also trying to be consistent between defendants with similar cases and trying to be consistent from one ADA (assistant district attorney) to the next and between one courtroom to the next.

"This is not always easy. Negotiating guilty pleas is more art than science and one of the hardest things for a new ADA to learn to do well."

State Sen. Chuck Payne, R-Dalton, said he hasn't been contacted by either constituents or those in law enforcement with concerns about repeat DUI offenders.

"If they do, it's certainly something that I will look into and see what we can do," he said. "I'd think we'd have to look beyond the jail and beyond the courthouse if we do look for something. I know from my career as a juvenile probation officer that if someone is a habitual offender like this, they have a bigger problem.

"The people doing this repeatedly aren't just people who go out and have a good time and don't realize how impaired they are when they get behind the wheel. They've got other issues and we need to figure out how to deal with that."

State Rep. Kasey Carpenter, R-Dalton, said he also has not heard from prosecutors or law enforcement or regular citizens about repeat DUI offenders.

"If they contact me and say we need to do something different or something tougher, I'll certainly listen and see what we can do," he said.

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