License to kill?
By Hinda Mandell
North Adams Transcript
NORTH ADAMS -- A city man with a criminal record of eight drunken driving charges was driving on the road New Year's Eve when he crashed into a ditch on Massachusetts Avenue. Darryl S. Copenhaver, 41, was allegedly drunk then, too. When a police officer arrived on scene and asked Copenhaver to exit the vehicle, he "almost fell to the ground," according to the police narrative of Jason R. Wood.
Copenhaver was charged with drunken driving, his ninth offense -- it was the first time he was charged in Massachusetts. According to Wood, Copenhaver does not have a valid driver's license in Massachusetts or any other state; he shouldn't have even been on the road in the first place.
The day before, in an unrelated incident, city police arrested a Williamstown man, Arthur P. Tatro Jr., described as "highly intoxicated" in the police log, and charged him with drunken driving, his fifth offense.
These two examples of repeat drunken driving arrests highlight a larger national problem that continues to threaten public safety and poses a glaringly obvious question: How is it that after multiple charges of driving drunk, the accused -- and convicted -- are still driving around?
While the authorities can take away a person's license after a single drunken driving offense, that person can apply to get it back after six months. When a person is found guilty of driving drunk on the fifth offense, the driver's license is taken away for life, said Judge Michael J. Ripps at Northern Berkshire District Court.
But even without a driver's license, people are still capable of putting a key into the ignition and stepping on the accelerator. After all, District Attorney David Capeless said law enforcement officers "are not capable of standing next to every citizen and preventing them from participating in a crime."
However, while citizens must be held accountable for their actions, at what point should the state recognize that incarceration or alcohol abuse treatment programs do not fully prevent repeat offenders from drinking and driving?
Criminal defense attorney William A. Rota, who represents individuals charged with driving drunk, said incarceration may not be the most effective sentence. "Should we lock him up for 10 years, at $40,000 a year, at taxpayer's expense?"
However, another option -- alcohol dependency treatment centers for repeat offenders -- may not be able to fully affect and address a person's chronic drinking habits within a 14-day time-span. The director of the DUI Program associated with UMass Memorial Hospital in Worcester, Peggy Wiinikainen, could not provide statistics on the success rate of the in-patient program for repeat offenders.
Barbara Harrington, state executive director of MADD, said that while there is something that can be done to physically prevent repeat offenders from driving drunk, Massachusetts has rejected these measures. As a result, the state may lose $9 million in federal highway funding.
Thirty-nine states, however, have adopted federally-supported "repeat offender laws," said Harrington, such as "some kind of vehicle control measures."
An example of a control measure includes a computerized ignition interlock system that asks for a breathalyzer or a complex number sequence from the vehicle's driver necessary to operate the car. "When you cannot separate the drunk driver from the drinking, you try to separate him from the car," said Harrington.
If a person failed the breathalyzer or was unable to punch the correct code into the system, the computerized device would prevent an intoxicated individual from operating the vehicle. While Massachusetts ranks 12th in the nation for per capita for alcohol consumption, said Harrington, the state's legislature has failed to pass these measures.
While it is within the discretion of an individual judge in Massachusetts to order the installation of an ignition interlock system on a repeat offender's car, it is not mandated by the state. Ripps said he has not previously ordered repeat offenders to use this system.
Harrington pointed to the state's constitution -- the oldest in the nation -- as an explanation for the state's rejection of legislation that would get tough on repeat offenders. As one of the original state constitutions, Massachusetts' constitution supports and protects an individual's rights -- and that includes a person's right to privacy.
For example, according to Judge Ripps, an individual's refusal to take a breathalyzer at the scene of an alleged drunken driving incident is inadmissible in trial -- as are a person's previous drunken driving offenses. Even if a person has a record of driving under the influence of alcohol, the jury is not privy to that information.
Besides the implementation of vehicle control measures that some might consider invasive, Harrington said that the key to preventing drunken driving is law enforcement that aggressively pursues offenders.
Today, MADD released a report on the positive effects of law enforcement in deterring drunken driving. If offenders -- or potential offenders -- know that police are on the prowl, that will translate into fewer drunken drivers on the road. Harrington said that a "highly visible" police force causes people to take notice.
The positive outcome of the two local arrests -- for a ninth and fifth drunken driving offense, respectively -- is the fact that the North Adams Police Department caught them driving drunk and arrested them, said Harrington.
Police Sgt. James Burdick said, "We just keep arresting them and taking them off the roads to the best of our ability ... I've dealt with people who are so drunk they can't walk -- but they manage to sit up in the seat and drive."